365 Books in 365 Days – Episode 110 by Annie Walton Doyle

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New Animal by Ella Baxter

“‘I think you might be trying to get away from those things, because of your sadness, which is so uncomfortable that it’s almost unbearable—but I promise you, running away from that sadness is like trying to run from your own shadow.’”

When New Animal was published, it was salaciously (and, in my opinion, wrongly) depicted as a book about kink. And while there is a sex club and whips and chains and see-through-body-stockings for your reading pleasure, to me, this is really a book about having a body, and all the problems that come with it. It’s more than just another entry into the infamous ‘sad girl fic’ canon, it’s an exploration of the very worst parts of being a human. 

Trying to cope with being a person is difficult for us all, but none so much as our protagonist Amelia. Because outside of the cerebral and emotional factors of personhood, we also have to cope with our mortal forms. And the two main issues the possession of a body brings up? The intrusive desire for sexual satisfaction, and the inevitability of dying. 

Amelia turns to BDSM as a coping mechanism for missing her unexpectedly and accidentally dead mother. But death is masterfully woven through the book from the off, too. Amelia works as a beautician in a morgue, giving her an oddly proximate and unflinching perspective on the end of life. “I think it’s human nature to want to look at wounds. It must be.” 

Before the brutal loss of her mom, Amelia even sees the beauty in death: “The deceased are beyond beautiful, but only because they are so empty of worry. Everything tense or unlikeable is gone. Like a shopping center in the middle of the night, they have lost all the chaos and clatter.” The only way to be free from the sadness and stress of life is by dying – but what kind of solution is that? 

Feeling only a frightening numbness after her mother’s death, Amelia looks for a way to feel anything, rather than feel better.  “I’ve got a cold heart and a sadness that makes me want to cling to anything that might make me feel warm.” The natural conclusion, for her, is to run away to Tasmania and join a BDSM club. But rather than seeking pleasure, she’s using sex as a form of self-harm. 

Baxter’s depiction of the sex scenes in this novel (and they only make up about a quarter of the book, in spite of what the marketing campaign may have had you believe) is compelling. She perfectly portrays both the light and even humorous aspects of kink in Amelia’s disastrously vulgar attempts at domming, but also offers a darker viewpoint through the vile character of Leo. Leo’s love for causing pain seems to go beyond BDSM, and his hurting of Amelia seems altogether darker than the sex party advertises: “You can always throw your body on the fire to keep others warm. I was already filled with petrol; he’s just a man-shaped match.”

Although arguably an unhealthy coping mechanism, Amelia’s engagement with sex does seem to help her cope with life.  “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.” Through this assertion, Baxter asks the reader: why are we scared of bodies, of both being alive and of dying?

Because while Amelia’s coping strategy may seem extreme, perhaps it’s better than the alternative, sanitized version of grief. “Let me tell you, pet, life is either boring or shocking, there’s not much in between.”

Annie Walton Doyle is a 20-something writer based in Manchester, UK. She typically writes about beauty and other “personal aesthetics,” with a healthy dose of both social commentary and stupidity. When not touching makeup or reading books, she enjoys pubs, knitting, nature, and mysteries.

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