My rating: 3 stars
In English Animals by Laura Kaye, a young Slovak woman depicts the way of life of an English couple in the countryside, while also delving into how they influenced her growing process. Through Mirka’s personal story, the book touches on cultural differences, xenophobia and homophobia. At first, the combination of these topics and a distinguishable set of characters makes for an interesting read. However, more or less midway through the book I started getting bored of following their daily life. It didn’t help that some of the characters’ reactions aren’t fully believable.
Nineteen-year-old Mirka is originally from Slovakia. She was hired to work in a country house in rural England. Her employers were Sophie and Richard. She thought she would be taking care of their children, but they had none. Instead, she was going to help Richard in his “latest grand money-making scheme”, taxidermy. When Mirka arrived at Fairmont Hall, Richard wasn’t at home, so she had dinner alone with Sophie. She was shocked by the way they did things. The kitchen was a mess, and they let the dogs lick the plates which they had just used. Their first meal together is used to showcase their differences in everyday behaviour. I personally found it strange that both Sophie and Mirka associated drinking alcohol with getting drunk. One doesn’t have to lead to the other.
When Richard arrived drunk from the pub escorted by a police officer, he mistreated Sophie. Mirka was concerned but didn’t do anything out of fear. It was with great surprise that the day after Mirka realised that Richard could also be kind. They were at the barn where he did his taxidermy work when she started crying because of the dead bird that he was working on. She only then understood the true meaning of death. Richard held her in his arms until the tears stopped and was sympathetic.
As days went by, Mirka came to know her employers better. They were facing economic difficulties. Besides the taxidermy business, they also had tourists staying at the house and occasionally hosted weddings. Their relationship had highs and lows. Richard was sometimes loving and caring. But they had different outlooks on life. Sophie cared about what was happening around the world (fracking, tax havens, feminism), while Richard didn’t. He believed that such issues didn’t influence his life. He also didn’t like changes in habits and conducts.
Mirka felt lost. She wasn’t sure if she would ever find a place to call home. She is gay and had to leave her hometown when her mother discovered. After some time living in Bratislava, she moved to England, because homosexuality wasn’t easily accepted in Eastern Europe. She hadn’t seen her family in two years, nor did she tell them where she was living. She wasn’t sure what to do when the time came to leave Sophie and Richard’s house.
“One day I would have to give it back and leave the house to find my real life. But how would I know when a life was really mine? How did you know when you had found a home? I could never go home to my town and live there again. My old life was not mine any more. Perhaps I would never belong anywhere like a plant, I would move through different lives for ever.”
Slowly, Mirka started falling for Sophie. And her feelings only grew stronger when Sophie told her that, while at university, she had had sex with a girl, although she had always enjoyed feeling desired by boys during her teenage years. That led me to question whether Sophie had poor judgement, was consciously playing with Mirka’s feelings or was unaware of them.
At the same time, Mirka was getting really good at taxidermy, much better than Richard, whom she became friends with. Through the topic of taxidermy, the book delves into grief and the desire for permanence in the world. But it is also used as an opportunity for Mirka to show that she can depict and satirise modern society.
Not everyone was welcoming to Mirka. David, the part-time gatekeeper, didn’t like immigrants. He was always rude to her and said to her face that she should have stayed in her country. Richard thought David was too serious and didn’t personally like him, but, as he had been working there since he was 17 years old, he didn’t think it was acceptable to dismiss him.
English Animals depicts country life in England. Richard once even took the opportunity to slate London. Unfortunately, sometimes the account of certain events goes on for too long. That is the case with a shooting of pheasants at Fairmont Hall. I have no interest at all in that kind of activities, thus I had to skim through that part not to succumb to boredom. On the other hand, one of my favourite parts of the book is when Mirka spent one day in London. It immediately felt like she was missing out by being in the countryside with Richard and Sophie.
Not much happens in terms of plot, the spotlight is on the characters. At first that wasn’t a problem, seeing that the interactions between Mirka and both Sophie and Richard were enjoyable and engaging. They reveal much about the characters. However, midway through, the novel starts becoming monotonous. Not even the visit of Sophie’s father, which created a different dynamic between the characters, was enough for the book to become appealing again. Furthermore, certain reactions by some of the characters didn’t feel genuine to me. They were even slightly unbelievable. How could Richard be so old-fashioned in some aspects and so open-minded about others?
After finishing this novel, I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied. It had great promise, but it goes on for too long and features too many unnecessary domestic details, which only hinder Mirka’s character development.