Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, “Mostly Dead Things,” is an incisive and peculiar study of grief. Jessa-Lynn Morton is a third-generation taxidermist, the protégée of a father who teaches her to lovingly pare hides and flesh from animal bodies. As an adult, Jessa discovers his body in their shop, slumped over one of the work tables with a self-inflicted bullet hole in his skull.
Jessa, who was already drinking herself into blackouts each night over Brynn, a lost love who also happens to be her brother’s runaway wife, takes over the failing shop, swallows her grief for her father and tries to figure out how to manage her mourning mother. “Mostly Dead Things” is heartbreaking and weird.
Arnett divides her work into sections named for the taxidermy process, and each chapter is titled with the name of an animal preserved. But “Mostly Dead Things” uses the preservation of animal bodies as a metaphor as much as a plot detail.
Jessa surrounds herself with frozen reminders of her past. The Morton family stagnates after the death of their patriarch: Jessa’s mom shaves her head and glues sex toys into dead animal mouths in cross-species sex scenes. Her brother sleeps through work and ignores his children. Jessa drinks herself into oblivion and makes herself emotionally unavailable to the women in her life. Old habits fester.
“We just didn’t discuss each other’s business,” Jessa says of her family. “Mostly we retold the same old stories, nostalgia over things we’d rehashed a thousand times before, varnishing the memories so they shone and hiding all the bad parts. I often wondered why we didn’t talk about the present, why the past held all the promise while the future sat before us like stagnant water.” Arnett shows how grief can immobilize.
“There’s gotta be some tenderness,” Jessa’s father told her when he was teaching her the family trade. “There’s gotta be some love.” But the man who waxed poetic as he flayed the hides off of animals left too much unsaid at home; his close bond with Jessa meant he ignored his wife and son. Jessa’s mom turns to art to process her feelings, and Jessa has to confront the hold of Brynn’s memory as well as the way she’s always viewed her mother.
“The things she made felt valueless to me. How could I take her seriously when nobody else did?” At the heart of “Mostly Dead Things” is the discomfort of a daughter realizing that she and her mother are real people.
Arnett writes about how we have to overcome our first understanding of the world in order to process it as an adult. She uses the language of taxidermy to explore the memories that ripple beneath our longest held beliefs.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer and book critic in Elk Grove, Calif.
Mostly Dead Things
By: Kristen Arnett.
Publisher: Tin House, 356 pages, $24.95.