Book Review: Mostly Dead Things

Kristen Arnett

Rating: 3 out of 5.

published: 2nd July 2020
spoilers? no


One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife—and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with—walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates—picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose—and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.

I never knew what I wanted. And I didn’t want to need anything. Better to need nothing; nothing never hurt you when it left.

Galley provided by publisher

CWs: graphic descriptions of animal death & killing, suicide & description of suicide

You know how, as a kid, you might find something gross, and one of our parents might make a comment along the lines of “that’s just a normal bodily function”? That’s generally the feeling I get reading adult contemporary general/literary fiction. There’s often an almost-hyper focus on presenting the mundane in all its rawness (and thus, grossness), which very often turns me off it.

So, really, I don’t know why I keep trying it over and over.

Mostly Dead Things is the revealing of a family’s dysfunctionality following the death of the main character’s father. Dysfunctionality and the various ways in which this man has, to put it bluntly, fucked them all up.

I actually quite liked reading that aspect of this book. It’s probably what kept me reading after coming to the realisation that the rest of it was not to my liking. Somehow, despite not really liking the graphic descriptions of animal death, despite not really liking the characters individually, that family relationship is what kept me going. I was rooting for them to sort everything out and start repairing relationships all throughout.

But, like I said, the characters were not all that likeable. It’s almost as though, in making the book so focused on that rawness and nastiness of life, making the characters sympathetic got left behind (or at least, so it seemed to me). I’m not saying they were all terrible people with zero redeeming characteristics, but. They were people who had been fucked over who maybe should have inspired more sympathy than they did, perhaps.

On the whole though, I did like the book. And it gives me the (dubious) honour of now knowing multiple gay books that involve taxidermy.

Though I do not know what to do with that.

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