My Review of The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Death has always been a part of life, and has been used as themes in literature through many different angles. Sometimes from the point of view of the mourners (e.g. EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE), sometimes from the dead (e.g. THE LOVELY BONES), even from the grim reaper’s point of view (e.g. THE BOOK THIEF). Never before did I read a book where the mourning relative of a dead person mourns through taxidermy, an art form I always found bizarre and somewhat related to cruelty toward animals.

Until I read this book.

THE ART OF TAXIDERMY is a verse novel written from the point of view of a preteen girl, Lottie, whose poignant narrative shows us how she copes with the many losses and deaths in her life, and how they shape her life.

I must confess something here. I am also a writer. My writing journey began as a way to cope with deaths in my family. In December 2013, I began to write, after struggling with death and mourning and grief and loss got almost two years. I put to words a story circling in my head and before I knew it, it became my most intense and passionate dream.

I began to write to cope with death, the way Lottie did. Here, I connected so strongly with her, I cannot express in words. Lottie, at a tender age, lost her sister, Annie, in a tragic accident, and then lost her Mother and her unborn/stillborn little sister as well. To cope with death and loss, Lottie began to find corpses of dead animals in the forest around her suburbia. To preserve the dead animals, she learnt to do amateur taxidermy. She could not resurrect her mother and sister. They were long gone. But she grieved through this.

Her passion was not well received by her aunt Hilda, who took over the household after Lottie’s father retreated to his study to cope with many more deaths in his life; of his own father, his twin brother, his wife and two of his children. Like Lottie, he didn’t let go of his deceased loved ones. Rather he clung to them. From him, Lottie received minor antagonism. Through him and Lottie and Lottie’s grandmother, Oma, and Aunt Hilda, the author shows us different ways of grieving and mourning for loss.

Alongside this, the author also sketched beautifully how racism plays its role in post WWII Australia. German Lottie and her dark skinned aboriginal friend, Jeffrey are isolated and alienated from the rest of the mainly white Australian school. For those who naïvely believe Australia has no racism should pick up and educate themselves through this book.

Overall, I’d recommend this beautiful and poignant coming of age verse novel about death and grieving and learning to live and love again after significant losses in life. Through taxidermy, the author shows us the dead might never come back alive, but the mummy of their memories will always be preserved among us, through the art of taxidermy, aka our love for them.

Advertisements

My Review of Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Why, though, does it take

a mother, daughter, sister

for men to take

a woman at her word?”

Book Content warning:

Sexual assault, suicide contemplation

This is my first time reading a verse novel. And I’m so glad I started with this one. It’s one of the most poignant tales of a girl’s griefs and sorrows perpetuated by patriarchy, victim blaming, and female subjugation. I’ve never heard about artist Artemisia Gentileschi but I do know now and her story is one of the most inspiring ones I’ve ever heard about.

This novel is also structurally unlike most other novels. And its structure suited the story perfectly. I don’t think a simple prose novel would’ve fitted Artemisia’s story. The prose is simply marvellous and heartrending.

If you know or heard about Artemisia the artist, you should know about her story, how she was raped by one of her father’s friends, another artist, Agostino Tassi, who later refused to marry her. Some claim Artemisia had sexual relationship with Tassi after her rape by him but this novel shows anything but. Here, Artemisia is empowered and beatified by the prose, by her thoughts. Alongside Artemisia, we come face to face with the tales of Susanna and Judith, two more strong women born way ahead of their time. Susanna and Judith’s tales are told from common prose, not in verse however. But by drawing a parallel between their tales and that of Artemisia, author Joy McCullough is showing us the lost and hidden tales of strong women, brave women, women who weathered their morals against all the allegations and storms hurtled toward them by society, by family, even by their most trusted and beloved. Like Susanna, Artemisia’s virtue and morality were questioned and ridiculed, poked and prodded. Yet like Susanna, Artemisia does not cower and bow before the patriarchy. Rather like Susanna, Artemisia held steadfast, looking eye to eye in the face of the monstrous ugliness of patriarchy, of victim blaming. Here, while telling us the tale of Susanna in the most unique manner, Ms. McCullough does not hero Daniel who is said to have rescued Susanna from being stoned. Rather she upholds Susanna as the sole hero of her tale.

Similarly we find the tale of Judith. Unlike the men of her hometown, Judith, and her maidservant Abra, risked their lives to protect their homeland and their people. Yet in the end, the very people they protected, by risking their lives, were the ones who shied away from them in fear. Fear? Yes, because women brave and courageous as Judith and Abra are not human, at least not normal human, in their eyes. To them, normal women were supposed to be docile and subservient, meek and silent. They did as they were told, even if the orders were sinful. But like Judith, Artemisia also did not let the society’s ostracism affect her much. Unlike her own family, who cowered and bowed before the world, she singlehandedly beheaded the patriarchy. She suffered from PTSD like Judith and Abra did. Yet unlike Judith and Susanna, who had Rebecca and Abra as their female supports, sisterly supports, Artemisia found none. It is sad that she didn’t. And yet she did. Not in someone tangible but someone from her imaginations, her canvases, the bedtime stories her mother had drummed into her head.

Artemisia found two sisters in Susanna and Judith. What she didn’t find in Tuzia, her live-in maid/tenant, she found in her works. In her palette, her brush strokes, her canvases, Artemisia found her supports. When the patriarchy tried to take away even that, she held fast. Her fingers were smashed and yet she persisted. Her rapist got away with his crime and yet she persisted. People thought of her as a characterless woman. Nontheless she persisted. She was a warrior mightier than Alexander the Great. Alexander had his gallant army behind him to win his battles. Artemisia had none, at least no one tangible and real. Artemisia was a true artist. Unlike her male peers, she endured more and hence was immortalized by her works. Through her works we find strong sisterhood and female bonds, something she didn’t find in her own life.

Artemisia is a heroic artist. And no Caravaggio can equal her in any way, no matter what. Because her palette wasn’t only consisting of paint and pigments. Hers had blood of her wounded virtue, water of her shed and unshed tears, and paint of her broken hearts bleeding on her canvases.

Sad to say, nothing changed even 408 years later. Victims are still questioned and ridiculed, blamed and ostracized. Sexual assaulters still get away. Patriarchy still dominates.

Nothing has changed.