What do we want to do when we grow up? When should we really grow up and become, erm, grown-ups and settle down? Who makes us choose either way and should we conform to any of this? Do our friends change as we do, can the best and truest of friendships last the test of time and these changes? Do we ever really know who we want? Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel, Animals, looks at all these questions and gives a current, eye opening, honest and often very funny insight into women in their late twenties and early thirties.
Laura and Tyler are best friends who live together and spend most of that time living together, apart from when they have to go to that pesky place called work (though Tyler doesn’t really need to unlike Laura who is while she writes her debut novelBacon), getting off their faces together – be it drink, drugs or preferably a bit of both – and having a rather wild time. However change is in the air. No, not since Tyler went and got a cat called Zuzu who hates Laura, since Laura got engaged and then worse still her fiancé, Jim, went and performed the cardinal sin of becoming a teetotaller. Now to add to the many hangovers, after the many crazy nights out, Laura has a headache hanging over her life as she must decide whether she really still wants to be an ‘any time and all night party girl’, or head for domesticity and listen to that ticking biological clock. Before any of you go making the mistake of thinking this sounds like a noughties Bridget Jones or chick-lit it is far from either, in fact Caitlin Moran has described it as ‘Withnail with girls’ as we are given a frank and no holds barred insight into what single, and engaged, ladies like to get up to before someone puts a ring on it.
You know how it is. Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move. I blinked and the floaters on my eyeballs shifted to reveal Tyler in her ratty old kimono over in the doorway. ‘Way I see it,’ she said, glass in one hand, lit cigarette in the other, ‘girls are tied to beds for two reasons: sex and exorcisms. So, which one was it with you?’
If we happen to be in, or over, our thirties then we all go through this stage at some point in our lives whatever gender or sexuality we are. It’s that eternal question we seem to be asked from a young age that we rebel against, the ‘what do you want to be when you’re a grown up?’ question that may possibly make us wince, which fortunately gets mistaken for a tight smile, or want to kill the person asking, covering those thoughts up with a false smile. Yet it is the question we are asked most as youths and then find ourselves annoyingly asking when we get older. Unsworth gives us three (Laura, Jim and Tyler) people’s reactions to that process with much insight and from all angles. Marvellous.
One of the other things that is marvellous is Unsworth’s writing. In Animals she manages to tread the thin lines of laugh out loud funny and incredibly dark. She also manages to do something quite a lot of writers fail at which is to make a book very funny without ever falling into the territory of a farce. These girls are having fun, even if they regret it the next morning sometimes, and that comes through in the writing. They are also firmly centred in reality, you have seen these girls on the streets of an evening, heard them laughing, seen them swaying drunkenly and sometimes making a tit, possibly literally, out of themselves.
She also, most importantly, writes some truly brilliant sentences such as… Oh. Give me a glance between two lovers on any day and I will show you a hundred heartbreaks and reconciliations, a thousand tallies and trump cards. Or… I felt it, then: a tremor down my spine; a cold spot at the back of the courtyard. A cat lying in the shade, flicking a caught bird with its claw over and over and over.
Unsworth also uses the darkly humorous to highlight some themes which also make the book all the more realistic and layered. I have mentioned the theme of friendship and the sense of needing to decide when to be a grown-up which we all face. With Laura and Tyler though she is also looking at how the modern world is for women and what the deal with feminism is right now. Is it to not have children and do what you like regardless of the labels of ‘crazy cat lady’ or ‘spinster’? Is it to be a wife and mother? Do you have to choose? Can you have it all? Does it matter either way? All big questions, all looked out without any feeling that Unsworth wanting to impart which is right or which is wrong, exploring all angles with two strong female leads, who may happen to be a tiny bit messed up, but aren’t we all?
Jeannie Johnson. Who’d once accidentally set her own pubes ablaze standing naked on a candlelit dinner table. She’d out spectacled us all. Now where is she? Spouting clichés, in stirrups.
Animals is a very clever book. It is an entertaining, occasionally frankly filthy, giggle and smirk inducing romp which also raises an eye to what life is like for women (though actually for all of us) as we grow up, try to become grown-ups (or try not to) and the choices and decisions we have to make as we evolve. It is a book which never takes itself too seriously, whilst being written brilliantly, yet by its very nature highlights some serious modern conundrums we all go through. As I said, clever, deftly done, wonderfully written and immensely readable.
If you want to know more about Animals you can hear Emma and I having a chat about the book (Emma even telling me off a bit) over a pint on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here. Who else has read Animals and what did you make of it?