Review: Land Mammals and Sea Creatures - Jen Neale
Genre: Literary fiction
Publised: ECW Press, May 2018
My rating: 2/5 stars
“Selfdestruction can be a lot of things. Sad, devastating, quiet, glorious. Sweet relief. Comfort.”
I should have been a little more prepared for this, based on reviews by other readers I trust, but this nonetheless was my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Combining magical realism, grief and a seaside setting, this hád to be a new favorite, right? Unfortunately, despite having all the potential to be (both in ways of the premise as well as the writing) the novel as a whole felt a little too disjointed to work for me.
We start off with a powerful scene: whilst on a boating trip a father and daughter witness a blue whale beach itself intentionally on the shores of their hometown. The story continues from the perspective of three witnesses of the event: father Marty, a war veteran suffering from depression and PTSD. Julie, his loving daughter trying her best to help her father in every way she can. And Jennie Lee Lewis (JLL), an eccentric musician impersonator who mysteriously arrived that day in town, hellbent on stirring the pot in their normally peaceful village. What follows is a plethora of equally beautifully set- and written scenes, with equally powerful imagery, that ultimately lack the required cohesion to form a plot.
I can’t express how much of a shame this was, as many of the chapters on their own were very powerful. Jen Neale clearly is a very talented author with a good eye for setting a scene and a great feeling for language. What was missing for me however, was an equally powerful main plot to serve as the backbone of the novel, from which the other scenes could branch. Because this was lacking for me, I kept feeling I might have enjoyed this novel more had it been a collection of short stories, instead of a novel. My second problem lies with the characters: I really don’t think they were as developed as they should have been. Marty by far is the best and most interesting: I think his struggle with PTSD was believable. The scenes where he is alone with just his dog and his thoughts were some of my favorite. My problem lies with Julie and JLL, who both try to help Marty, albeit in very different ways. Julie was okay for a side character: a little “vanilla” with the occasional cynical joke. JLL however, acts as the “antagonist” to Julie and is pretty much just despicable. I think the author was trying to portray her as a type of nihilistic liberal, who mostly just wants to have fun before things come to an end, but it ends up coming out as selfish destructiveness without any redeeming quality. I disliked the way she was written more so than I did her character in itself, which is never a good sign.
The topic of suicide is woven clearly throughout this novels every page, to varying degrees of success. There are passages that really hit home for me, yet others (mostly from the mouth of JLL) just grossly oversimplify things and miss the mark completely. It is possible that this was the authors intent, showing her own opinion towards JLL’s “nihilistic destructiveness”, but even if that’s the case I don’t agree with how it was handled. JLL’s behavior is a not uncommon coping mechanism in people after tragedy, and deserved a better portrayal than this. Land Mammals and Sea Creatures is a book with a lot of potential, that clearly got me thinking about it a lot, but unfortunately wasn’t all I wanted it to be. Despite the disappointment I will keep Jen Neale on my radar for a while, as all the signs of a very talented author are there and I really want to see what she comes out with next.
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