Never mind new animals: Ella Baxter’s debut novel looks at first to be a very familiar creature. Main character Amelia (surname Aurelia, a piece of whimsy explained by her taking her stepdad’s surname) is one of those fictional young women who lives in between the morbid and the erotic. She has outrageous sex to swallow her ineffable sadness, and though she’s from Australia rather than Ireland, she could have stepped from the pages of a Sally Rooney novel.
When we first meet her, she’s in bed with a man she barely knows: “We both watched patiently as he prodded my vagina with his hangnailed finger, and we took turns sighing mid-thrust.” She cajoles him into growling “I will ruin you” at her during intercourse, and after he has reluctantly provided satisfaction, she kicks him out and starts arranging her next hookup. In the morning, she’s ready for her job as a mortuary makeup artist, painting the dead into a simulation of their living selves.
The sex is, she tells us, a salve for some injury: “Most nights I find myself trying to combine with someone else to become this two-headed thing with flailing limbs, chomping teeth and tangled hair. This new animal. I am medicated by another body.” We learn that her stepbrother recently killed himself. And then her mother dies too – suddenly, accidentally, while Amelia is out having weird sex with another stranger.
Amelia decides she cannot attend her mother’s funeral and, without informing either her brother or stepfather, does a flit to Tasmania, where her birth father is. And what would she do here apart from seek more obliterating sex? “I’m going to have a wonderfully shocking time,” she announces, though the “wonderful” part fails to emerge. She goes to a fetish club with a self-confessed sadist, and when being bullwhipped on a stage doesn’t resolve her “particular mother-shaped wound”, she tries being a domme instead, disastrously.
Both these interludes are written with unsparing bathos. Amelia dispassionately observes a group in the kink club “engaging in what looks like sexual parkour”. “Do you love this?” she demands of the unfortunate sub on the receiving end of her debut domming performance. “It’s all right,” he says, noncommittally, having been peed on.
Baxter finds bleak comedy in these settings, and uses Amelia’s adventures to explore the strange landscape of 21st-century sexuality: a world where any sex you want is available at a sanitised swipe, where the comfort of another body comes at the end of a cold negotiation, where “consent” and “control” are safety rails that could fall away any second. “This is my choice,” she tells her sadist through gritted teeth, only goading him to hurt her more.
It’s hard, though, to reconcile Amelia’s innocence in her BDSM encounters with the person we know her to be in her hookups. Surely a young woman who chews through men and their boundaries the way we see her doing at the start would have at least a passing acquaintance with the mores of the fetish world? And it seems unlikely that someone who makes multiple pickups a night would have never encountered at least one honest-to-goodness danger before the bullwhipper.
If her naivety seems excessive, so does her exposure to mortality. The death of her stepbrother is strangely superfluous, seemingly introduced only to forewarn us that Amelia applies promiscuity to her traumas the way a firefighter applies an axe to a burning building. Her job seems all too much like a convenient way to facilitate this sort of commentary: “The deceased are beyond beautiful, but only because they are so empty of worry.”
It’s as though Baxter doesn’t quite have confidence in her own creation, and so loads up the backstory. It’s an unnecessary worry. Amelia makes sense on her own terms, as a young woman negotiating the sexual settlement. Baxter is a sharp observer, and seems to have the Didion knack of getting close to a subject without surrendering her scepticism. New Animal is a little unformed – if Amelia’s art is a metaphor for the novel, then the blusher still needs some blending – but there’s a winning talent here.