New Animal

Ella Baxter

New Animal
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New Animal

Ella Baxter

… most nights I find myself trying to combine with someone else to become this two-headed thing with flailing limbs, chomping teeth, and tangled hair. This new animal. I am medicated by another body. Drunk on warm skin. Dumbly high on the damp friction between them and me.

It’s not easy getting close to people. Amelia’s meeting a lot of men but once she gets the sex she wants from them, that’s it for her; she can’t connect further. A terrible thing happened to Daniel last year and it’s stuck inside Amelia ever since, making her stuck too.

Maybe being a cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business isn’t the best job for a young woman. It’s not helping her social life. She loves her job, but she’s not great at much else. Especially emotion.

And then something happens to her mum and suddenly Amelia’s got too many feelings and the only thing that makes any sense to her is running away.

It takes the intervention of her two fathers and some hilariously wrong encounters with other broken people in a struggling Tasmanian BDSM club to help her accept the truth she has been hiding from. And in a final, cataclysmic scene, we learn along with Amelia that you need to feel another person’s weight before you can feel your own.

Deadpan, wise and heartbreakingly funny, New Animal is a stunning debut.

Review

Ella Baxter’s debut novel New Animal introduces a gritty, honest and complex protagonist in the form of Amelia, an embalmer working as a make-up artist at her mother’s mortuary. Exposed to other people’s grief, trauma and pain on a daily basis, Amelia escapes her mind and body through sex with strangers, all of whom she quickly discards. However, when faced with her own trauma and grief, Amelia’s desires and compulsions are challenged, and finding ways to escape her own mind becomes increasingly difficult. She leaves for Tasmania, where her semi-estranged father lives, and starts a different form of sexual exploration.

Readers should be warned that Baxter tackles some potentially triggering subject matter in this novel, including suicide and explicit, sometimes visceral, sexual imagery. While very few of the events in Amelia’s story are ones the average reader may experience – embalming suicide victims or hiding from emotional pain in a Hobart BDSM club – Baxter’s writing and incredible descriptive detail make the almost absurd experiences of her protagonist deeply relatable. Baxter’s illustration of Amelia’s challenged connection to her body evokes deep compassion, allowing the reader to connect strongly to the character. We come to see that Amelia’s stumble through grief is the epitome of the human experience of loss.

Baxter has created a dark, beautiful, wild and engaging read with an incredible ending to match. The story and evolution of Amelia’s relationship struggles and sexual compulsions are somewhat reminiscent of works by Nina Leger, and I would highly recommend Baxter to any fan of Leger’s The Collection. That said, New Animal’s descriptive imagery and emotionally engaging and unexpected plot make this incredibly appealing to a much wider audience too, so my recommendation extends far beyond Leger fans. If you enjoy bold contemporary Australian fiction, read it, as long as you’re prepared to hide your blush if reading on public transport.


Izzy White is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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