Mirka is 19, Slovakian, and starting a new job at an English country house. Her employers, Sophie and Richard, are upper-middle class, with no children, and Mirka is unsure at first what her role is to be. She becomes a live-in assistant, helping Richard with his fledgling taxidermy business, and providing domestic support to Sophie. The lines are blurred; is she domestic help, business employee, friend?
Mirka’s ability as a taxidermist soon surpasses Richard’s; for him it is another business venture to try and keep afloat amidst the troubles of keeping a large house running. But Mirka, though reluctant at first, finds an art in it; the English animals that she preserves become a way of expressing herself, and taking inspiration from old fashioned anthropomorphic taxidermy, creates a name for herself, eventually being featured in a magazine.
The taxidermy is expertly described, down to the smallest detail; if Laura Kaye has no experience of the craft herself then she has certainly done her research. But it provides a mere backdrop to the more important English Animals that are at work here; Richard, Sophie, and the supporting players throughout the story.
Mirka finds Richard an easy man to like when he is being warm, generous and funny; she shares a close friendship with him that includes trips to the pub and hunting expeditions (even if Mirka does ultimately balk at the idea of shooting an animal).
Sophie, the lady of the house, is an enigmatic, privileged woman who is used to having what she wants; though what she wants more than anything is the one thing she can’t seem to have – a baby. Mirka struggles at times to understand Sophie’s motivations, accusing her of seeing everything as a toy to play with. Sophie admits as much herself; she just wants to feel wanted.
The entrance of Mirka, an Eastern European, into a middle England village in this day and age certainly reflects a Brexit state of mind; in groundskeeper David we get a man who almost certainly would have voted leave, threatening Mirka and making it clear that he thinks she should go back to where she comes from. Sophie’s father, though slightly more caricatured than David, has similar views on foreigners, failing to recognise the irony in having a house in France that he lives in year-round.
The quirkiness of the English middle classes; isolated in their rural communities, is emphasised by the fact that the entire story is told from the perspective of Mirka, whose first language is not English. She has no handle on idioms, unable to help Sophie with the cryptic crossword until something finally clicks towards the end of the novel. Mirka’s sense of disorientation at this previously unknown culture helps us to see these people through her eyes. Her discomfort at Richard’s birthday party – a bad taste fancy dress party where people dress as dictators, pregnant nuns and child molestors – is palpable, and in stark contrast to another party she attends with some hipster types in East London, where she feels at ease, with her ‘own tribe.’
This really is an exceptional piece of work, particularly given that is a debut novel. It’s easy to read without lacking in scope, and the plot drives the momentum of the story beautifully. Laura Kaye is most certainly a novelist with a bright future.
English Animals by Laura Kaye
First published: January 2016
Provided by publisher