Who are we at the end of all things?
A body on the beach sparks this question in Falling Animals, the debut novel from Sheila Armstrong, an acclaimed Irish writer whose first foray into novels focuses on the humanist approach to connection, communication, and our shared histories, conscious and unconscious.
Taking place in a remote seaside community in Ireland, Falling Animals concerns itself with the mystery of a body that appears on the shoreline, a cipher of a man unknown to the community. The ripples of this discovery tracks throughout the isolated denizens of the town, and we follow them from person to person, watching as Armstrong masterfully interlocks relationships and history over a mystery that is, at journey’s end, the least interesting part of the story.
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Armstrong’s work is filled with the physical act of existing – bodies that fly, that fall, that are suspended in paroxysms of grief and loss and disbelief. The novel is anchored by a pair of bodies that linger on in the minds of the residents, firstly the mysterious body on the beach, and then the past mooring of a ship whose metaphorical corpse lingers below the surface of the bay. Even the title of the work is filled with the connotations of bodies succumbing to natural forces – the opening salvo highlights a ‘collector’ whose job is to remove the bodies of dead animals and recalls an incident of a spooked horse that plunged from a cliff, “[jumping] so high it had almost, almost flown”.
Armstrong is a humane writer, interested in the overlapping of individual and community, of individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Every person highlighted in Falling Animals‘ 200-odd page count is a full human being, ripe with promise and pain and longing, connecting to other people in their community whether consciously or not, like the threads of a spider’s web, or the hairline fractures of shattered glass.
Themes abound in Falling Animals, the exploration of the human body most prominently. In Armstrong’s hands, bodies break and bend and bleed, healing under currents of pain and left adrift on rocky coastlines. One queasy moment examines an organ post-excision, “the lump of meat in the jar looked disgusting – white and diseased, with pieces floating around it in a hazy cloud”, while commenting on how, due to the rate of daily cell proliferation, we are never the same person from day-to-day.
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The concept of song runs a tangible thread through Falling Animals; the concept of singing as a method of not only communication but of connection is throughout. Singing in Falling Animals provides both a means of communing with the dead, both individually and communally, but also as a method of the deceased from reaching back through the gloom, as employed by one point-of-view character. It all builds to a climax that rewards the reader with the sublime, an ending of voice and heart and connection that embraces the certainty of death and infuses it with tenderness and great affection, a paean to life and living.
Falling Animals is a short and bittersweet delight, and while its focus on the interlacing connections of its community could have had more payoff and catharsis, it’s still a stellar work from a writer coming into her power as a novelist, with one of the most touching endings a curious reader is to read all year, an ending you’re sure to fall for, pun very much intended.
Falling Animals is out now from Bloomsbury Circus.