Sharon Kernot, The Art of Taxidermy, Text Publishing Company, July 2018, 288 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925603743
This mesmerising verse novel is a delicate examination of grief and loss suffered by a young girl and her family. Lottie’s family are German but have been in Australia for many years. When they are interned during World War 11 there are long lasting consequences. In the stunning opening lines eleven-year-old Lottie falls in love with death. She becomes fascinated by the beauty of dead things, a dead gecko, the shiny wing of a dead crow, a stumpy-tailed lizard and more. This interest in bodies and decay is seen as ghoulish, as unnatural and a totally unsuitable interest for a young girl to indulge. Lottie’s mother died giving birth to a still born child and the family still mourns her loss. Another absence is Annie, Lottie’s sister who drowned in her grandmother’s dam some years ago. So Lottie lives with her father and is looked after by her waspish, conservative but loving Aunt Hilda.
Hilda tries to mold Lottie into an ordinary acceptable conformist traditional girl, but Lottie is quietly supported by her father in her unusual interests. Lottie sees the corpses that she so lovingly gathers with an artist’s eye, marvelling at their beauty of form, texture and colour. She makes friends with Jeffrey, an aboriginal boy, at school. He too doesn’t quite fit in as he is adopted by a European family and is not quite accepted by his classmates.
As Lottie reaches puberty and still continues her interest in collecting and preserving dead animals her behaviour becomes accepted as a legitimate calling and not as an aberration brought on by grief and loss.
This is a difficult subject to write about, but Kernot creates a poignant and vivid tale through her spare emotionally charged language. Her carefully delineated scenes whether outside in the heat and dryness of the Australian landscape or the warm interior of a German living room resonate with intense feeling. Scattered throughout the book are small internal illustrations by Edith Rewa which are a delicate counterpoint to the poetry. The beautiful cover reminiscent of a medieval still life also deserves praise.
This gradually unfolding story is a moving elegy on grief but is ultimately uplifting. Lottie’s passion and resilience, the love of her family, the beauty of the Australian fauna and flora all interwoven into a touching and deeply satisfying read, well-deserving its shortlisted place for the Text prize.
Reviewed by Mia Macrossan