The Art of Taxidermy – dark, but so exquisitely beautiful!

Image result for the art of taxidermy

Author: Sharon Kernot
Publisher: Text Publishing

Sharon Kernot’s verse novel, The Art of Taxidermy, is an exquisite, profoundly moving story of grief, loss and love and family.

The Art of Taxidermy is a beautiful verse novel that is set in a small country town in the 1960s. Kernot explores the theme of grief through her character, thirteen-year-old Lottie, who has experienced a great deal of death in her short life, including the loss of her mother. As the book unravels, you learn more about the losses that Lottie has experienced and you begin to understand why Lottie is so obsessed with death. Lottie’s way of grieving is unique – she collects dead animals and attempts to preserve them.

Lottie’s family has experienced significant losses and adversity. They are a German family living in post World War Two South Australia and one thread of the narrative is how members of the family were imprisoned in the Loveday Internment Camp during the war. Lottie’s family were considered enemies during this time and as such experienced great difficulties and hardships.

Lottie lives with her father, Wolfgang, who is gentle and kind-hearted, but he’s busy with work and he’s also distracted with his own grief. Her aunt Hilda lives nearby and helps Lottie’s father in the raising of Lottie. Aunt Hilda is a practical woman and she doesn’t understand why Lottie or her father cannot just move on with their lives. She doesn’t understand why they are both haunted by their losses.

The novel takes place in the 1960s and it is a time when people didn’t talk to children about death and dying. Lottie is confused and has been left to find her own way to understand what has happened to her family and to comprehend why she feels the way she does. No one is giving her advice or support, so she turns to taxidermy because that helps and gives her a place to understand her grief.

The reasons for Lottie’s desire to express her grief through taxidermy are evident.

I wanted flesh and blood, not ghosts.

Lottie’s father, a scientist, is accepting of her interests. Aunt Hilda, though, finds it ghoulish and unladylike. Kernot does manage to add some dark humour from the Lottie and Aunt Hilda relationship. Aunt Hilda finds some bloody sheets from one of Lottie’s experiments and believes Lottie has started her period. Aunt Hilda is delighted with this turn of events and gives Lottie advice and menstrual pads. Lottie accordingly uses the cotton from the menstrual pads to stuff a lorikeet.

The artwork on the cover also needs to be mentioned – the delicate gumnuts, wattle and pale blue and green eggshells that fill the cover are stunning and add another layer to the connection to the Australian bushland which features heavily in this verse novel and almost becomes another character in the book.

The Art of Taxidermy is ideally suited to verse novel. The dark and strange subject of taxidermy is a perfect fit. Verse novels are challenging to write and not many people can write them well, but Kernot has created a masterpiece. Beautifully voiced, this narrative took my breath away. What I love about this book, though, is that Kernot in such a beautiful way reminds us that no matter how ugly things may seem, there is beauty around every corner and that we all don’t have to see beauty in the same way.

Flower, Dead, Wither, Rose, Death

Ballad For A Mad Girl

Grace Foley is the girl who lives by her own rules. She’s the prankster in her small group of misfit friends. Grace is the one who always pushes the boundaries. Her friends ground her and they may be the misfits of the town, but they each have a place in their small circle – Grace is the funny one. The trouble is that Grace’s small group is growing up and they are changing and unlike Grace, they want more than what their group can offer them. Grace fears change because change has not been kind to Grace Foley.

Wakefield draws you into Grace’s narrative immediately when in the opening pages of the book Grace sneaks out of home to defend her position as the record holder for the fastest time crossing the 40-metre pipe running 15- metres above a gully at the local quarry. Grace has completed the pipeline run hundreds of times and she is fearless when it comes to this challenge, but this particular night she freezes and is paralysed with fear.

“I stop, steady myself, blink. Stretch my arms and wait for the edges of the world to come back. Fear is in front of me now, and to the side, above and below.”

Not only is Grace paralysed with fear. A strange blue mist has crept in and Grace begins to see, feel and experience the presence of another.

“I trace the word with my finger. It shimmers. A sharp impact near my ribs knocks me sideways and the pipe seems to buckle and twist. My legs lose grip. Close by, someone is sobbing as if their heart could break.”

After that night Grace begins to change, even though she’s desperately trying to hold on to the world, she knows. Grace learns of a mystery that is associated with the gully – a twenty-year-old mystery. A blonde, blue-eyed teenager named Hannah Holt disappeared without a trace and it’s rumoured she’s buried in the gully.

Grace is convinced that Hannah is haunting her. Hannah wants Grace to reveal the truth of what happened that night. That until Grace can do this, she won’t be free of Hannah.

Wakefield writes so beautifully and hauntingly; you feel the creepiness of what is happening to Hannah so vividly.

“A lone crow drifts in lazy circles above. Overhead, the powerlines are humming, and the pitch is maddening. I cup my hands over my ears and lean against the tree. My vision is leached – it’s as if I’m the only person breathing in an abandoned world.”

Wakefield writes her characters so tenderly that you truly ache for them and the dilemmas they find themselves in and Grace is no exception. Wakefield’s characters are real and nuanced.

Vikki Wakefield’s writing is to be appreciated and though this is a book that you want to read quickly because of the riveting mystery. Do yourself a favour and slow down because you may miss those moments that only add to Wakefield’s brilliance. Savour her writing.

Ballad For a Mad Girl is a beautifully creepy book. There is Wakefield’s usual edgy brilliance combined with a thrilling mystery. Ballad For a Mad Girl is Vikki Wakefield at her best – brilliant, edgy and disturbing.

Ballad