A Fiji mermaid—the top half of a monkey stuffed and sewed together with the tail of a fish—is an early example of hybrid taxidermy, a craft that combines two animals’ corpses to create a third. The Fiji mermaid was originally displayed as a “real” creature found in the wild. Hybrid taxidermy has since evolved into the art form at the center of Polly Hall’s first novel, The Taxidermist’s Lover.
A Fascinating Premise
The book’s titular lover, Scarlett, convinces her taxidermist partner Henry to give up on traditional taxidermy in favor of the hybrid sort early on. At first, she enjoys his new creations, having fun coming up with portmanteaus like “swoodle” or “crabbit,” but soon, she has second thoughts. She fears that combining the animals stops their souls from departing this plane and that those spirits want to possess her. She abandons silverware and describes the physical toll the spirits are taking, writing, “My hair had grown long and wild, way past my shoulders. I looked so thin that my eye sockets seemed to sink further into my skull. And my cheeks were sharp like carved ice.”
The plot with the animal’s spirits possessing Scarlett to punish Henry is a great concept, but it never pushes beyond those few cursory complications. Instead, Hall delves into the dynamics of Scarlett and Henry’s relationship. Henry is older and transgresses against Scarlett in varying ways throughout the novel. An over-friendly neighbor stokes Scarlett’s jealousy, creating a love triangle of sorts. The other major storyline is how the decades ago death of Scarlett’s parents impacted Scarlett and her twin brother Rhett. A lot is going on, which ends up working against the book because the individual threads never come together comprehensively. Instead of informing one another, the threads take away the focus and intensity from each other.
Scarlett narrates The Taxidermist’s Lover in the second-person, addressing everything she says to Henry. The frame does good work making the reader wonder what the narrator is confessing, but the second-person narrator makes a hard line to straddle. Some details are essential for readers that would be obvious to Henry. Polly has some success, but also some slips. For example, Scarlett describes Henry’s process to him, writing, “You would place the polished nuggets of glass onto the mount last of all, preferring the naked frame of each animal blind until you had finished sculpting and stitching the skin over layers of structure, blow-drying the fur, or primping the feathers, sometimes fixing with hair lacquer.” Readers may find it interesting, but Henry would be intimately familiar with the details of his process.
Between the gridlock of plotlines and the confusion with why the narrator explains things Henry would know to Henry, there is some excellent writing. Descriptions like, “A river of maggots escaped from the grey snake of its intestines onto the grass” almost redeem The Taxidermist’s Lover. They are certainly enough to excite readers for what Hall writes next.
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|Pub Date: December 8, 2020||Page Count: 256pp||Age Range: 18 & Over|
|ISBN: 978-0-7443-0037-6||Publisher: CamCat Books||List Price: $24.99|