Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth
26th Jun 2014
Best friends Laura and Tyler live together in every sense of the word: peeling each other off sticky dancefloors at 6am, returning home, concocting sausage-pasta-and-ketchup sharpeners and heading out to snort tequila slammers through straws again.
The slight snag is Laura’s fiancé , Jim, a recently-teetotalled concert pianist, whose efforts to mould his would-be-wife into respectability are starting to grate.
Emma Jane Unsworth is funny: there’s no escaping it, and so much of this crackles off the page with a wonderfully ferocious energy. Animals is relentless in its sharp one-liners, its attention to the details of too many hangovers, and the sense of being observed by disapproving eyes makes for an intense, if claustrophobic read.
“Hadn’t I fallen for his fixedness,” Laura asks herself of Jim, “his pin-like regard, as I’d sprayed around that scruffy bar like a Catherine wheel come off a fence?”
Unsworth is funny: there's no escaping it, and so much of this crackles off the page with a wonderfully ferocious energy. Animals is relentless in its sharp one-liners... and the sense of being observed by disapproving eyes makes for an intense, if claustrophobic read.The internal battle to leave the party, or outstay her welcome with Tyler is well-drawn, particularly in those sobering moments when old friends start to judge their lifestyle.
Tyler’s sister, “who’d once accidentally set her own pubes ablaze standing naked on a candlelit dinner table,” now married with a baby, seems to poke her head nervously round the door of Laura and Tyler’s benders and retreat, confused and hurt.
Unsworth perfectly captures the quiet sameness of these encounters, in houses oozing “a forced eccentricity that had dismally mutated into conformity.”
There’s a palpable, hawk-like examination of sexual double standards, particularly for women who hit the night hard and refuse to see this as the tabloids so often do: a female-centric problem, spurred by the desire to control women’s bodies and own them.
Laura’s voice is strongest when she’s engaging with these issues: commenting on a recent boy-band revival, which saw many booze-addled women admitted to hospital.
She is constantly questioning, and her wasted over-education is conveyed more here than in her private reflections: “Do you think A&E was any busier that night than after the football match at Old Trafford? No. It wasn’t. I checked. Tyler and I both checked, because this shit matters to us.”
The problem with Animals is pacing. Unsworth’s first novel, Hungry, the Stars and Everything, was tight and demanding: it smacked its hands down on the table and insisted an audience.
The two books are similar in their focus on addiction – for people, food, drink, drugs – yet the characters were fuller first time round, less stock.
Laura is presented too subtly for readers to get a deeper sense of who she is and what she wants. The multiple scenes where one casual drink becomes an all-nighter need trimming, and the ending is weaker because of this, providing a scant, hinted-at resolution.
It’s well, well worth a read for the razor-sharpness of its humour alone, but packs fewer punches through lack of character development. Of course, in a novel focusing on loss – of control, old friendship, ambition – this may well be the sad point.
“Where were my allies? My sad captains? Those moon sick girls I drank with over long winters behind the bowling alleys, driven there in cars we didn’t know. Those times when we were all strangers and everything was so far away but all we needed to do was run towards it. I had not grown much. I had not reached anywhere. I was still running. When I wasn’t lying down.”