Review of Stuart Forsyth’s Personal Taxidermy

Personal TaxidermyPersonal Taxidermy is a very unusual debut novel from Vanark Press in Melbourne.

My wife brought it home for me and I was immediately attracted to the jacket artwork. The story sounded intriguing, and it turned out to be well worth the read:

A young boy appears in a city alley late one night, and interrupts an attack on a prostitute. He suffers from an unnamed illness, and has no recollection of who he is or how he got there. The woman takes him back to her fleabag hotel for the night.

The next day he gets his own room, and meets the odd human flotsam who inhabit the place: a drunken ex-clown who haunts the bathroom, the wall-eyed concierge who squats in his cage scratching his carbuncle, and a man so devastated by lost love that he has somehow managed to turn himself into a bat creature - yes, it’s pretty surreal.

He makes friends with Indy Maru, a delivery girl for a Chinese restaurant where ’shadow soup’ is the speciality. The restaurant is also home to a morbidly obese Italian funeral singer named Bebel. Indy Maru believes that Widmo and Bebel are somehow linked - the key to his sickness and her condition is the same.

The story is set in a Melbourne of the mind, where magic and mystery are everywhere, and things don’t happen according to the usual rules. It shifts from waking to dreams, and mixes surreal poetry with the story. The jacket calls it a fable, but it’s not easy to work out what it’s trying to say.

All the characters suffer in one way or another - from loneliness, rejection, addiction or sadness - yet the overwhelming message is one of hope.

There’s a beginning, a middle and a climactic end, and the author has an original way of describing things. A lot of debut writers get bound up with trying to sound good, forgetting to just tell a story, but Personal Taxidermy has a really nice balance of story and verbal gymnastics.

The playful language is a highlight of the book - especially his use of simile and metaphor:

When I awoke, Lorelei was in the bathroom standing at the mirror. ‘I know this will sound strange, but please don’t get too attached to me.’ She was cleaning her ear with a cotton bud. ‘I have to go.’

I looked at the clock. I was confused. ‘It’s twenty past two,’ I said confidently. ‘It’s a bit late to go back to work.’

‘No, you don’t understand.’

She was right. I propped up on one elbow to get a square view of her. As I made the sudden movement, something came loose. It rolled down the spouting of my brain like a single marble, clanking and banging at every twist and turn, echoing down the pipe, through my head, down my neck and my shoulders, into my stomach, my buttocks and finally down my right leg, where it came to rest in my little toe. The place where love resides. She stared at me for a moment, and I don’t know if she ever knew what I felt, but I must have looked funny because there was something different in her stare. I lay back on the bed sheets.

Lorelei picked her things off the floor. She pulled on one stocking, then the other, then put on her shoes. I watched her leave … at the door she turned to me with eyes as shiny as river rocks.

Personal Taxidermy isn’t particularly ‘literary’. It’s not a difficult read, and as long as you can submit to its bizarre universe - a place where circus freaks break into hospitals to rescue patients, and illnesses can be cured by listening to the music in seashells - you should enjoy it.

I’ve not heard of the author Stuart Forsyth before, or Vanark Press, but I’ll definitely watch out for them in the future.

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