Being an immigrant gives someone a unique perspective on a country and its culture. I moved to England seventeen years ago and although I’ve lived here my entire adult life I don’t think I’ll ever feel wholly English. I’ve certainly been welcomed into the society, but I’m always conscious a national division exists. It was much easier for me to integrate into English culture because I’m American whereas someone coming from Eastern Europe like the narrator of Laura Kaye’s debut novel “English Animals” will inevitably face more challenges. I have conservative colleagues at my office who complain generally about immigrants destroying the country – despite one of them being married to an Eastern European and me being an immigrant but oddly I’m considered outside of this label. Sadly many people in London have these views as do many people in rural England where this novel takes place. This novel dynamically portrays the insular attitudes of some English people from the perspective of an outsider. It’s also a uniquely tragic love story.
Mirka moved to London from her native Slovakia, but she found the city somewhat oppressive so answered an ad to work within an English country estate. The novel begins with her arrive an indoctrination into this particular kind of English life. Like many grand old houses passed through generations of the aristocracy, this estate has run into financial trouble. The proprietor Sophie and her husband Richard have been working on a number of schemes to pay for the substantial costs of running the property. Mirka finds that she’s unknowingly being recruited to join Richard’s latest venture of running a taxidermy business called Nose to Tail. As Mirka grows accustomed to the peculiarly English life on this rural estate and the work, she finds she has a special talent for convincingly stuffing animals and develops a particular attachment to Sophie. Sophie and Richard are in many ways a friendly, modern-thinking couple, but they are also the products of a culture with particular customs and traditions. Straightforward Mirka finds it difficult to find where she really fits into this seductive country life. Her soul-searching dilemma prompts her to perpetually wonder “how would I know when a life was really mine? How did you know when you had found a home?”
Troubled love triangles have been written about in many ways before, but I admire the honest and compassionate way Kaye depicts this particular situation. Since her first romantic affair Mirka has always been certain about her desire for other women, but it’s this very clear-sightedness and unwillingness to pretend to be anything different that led to her exile from her family and native country. Now she finds herself embroiled in a romantic conflict with someone who is already in a long-term committed relationship but also “wanted everything.” Sophie and Richard’s permissive attitudes make Mirka feel at times like she’s wholly a part of their family, but in some crucial ways to do with class, nationality and sexuality she remains a perpetual outsider. These feelings are certainly reinforced by some of the small-minded locals who either look down or show open contempt for Mirka as an immigrant. However, Kaye also shows more liberal English individuals who welcome and respect people based solely on their character.
In some ways this novel reminded me of both the novels “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters and “Skin Lane” by Neil Bartlett, but Kaye's book is less sinister than either of these. Her writing is much more straightforward and at times scenes can become bogged down in a minute amount of trivial detail. But the plainness of her writing style is also part of this novel’s charm and accurately reflects Mirka’s character: English isn’t her first language and she is doggedly transparent in her feelings. The imagery which Kaye builds in her depiction of the taxidermy work and the way people in the countryside relate to the natural world does build a subtly moving picture of a particular kind of national character. The English people that Mirka meets are so steeped in their national identity with its attendant manners and attitudes that she is like a perpetual observer who must always remain on the other side of the glass. As long as she’s kept on the outside she must continue to search for a home of her own.