Several times recently I’ve enjoyed novels I might have otherwise dismissed thanks to a puff from authors whose own work I particularly enjoy. In the case of Jessica Anthony’s Enter the Aardvark it was the ‘fresh, witty and smart’ comment from one of my all time favourites, Kate Atkinson, that sealed the deal. Without it, I’m not sure I’d have picked up this book that manages to combine nineteenth-century taxidermy, twentieth-century genocide and twenty-first century political satire all in just under two hundred pages.
Alexander Paine Wilson, firmly in the closet even to himself, is running for re-election to Congress on a platform so loosely based on his putative ancestor Thomas Paine’s philosophy as to be unrecognisable to anyone but him. One hot day, FedEx delivers a large, bulky package to the house he shares with two other Congressmen which turns out to be a stuffed aardvark purportedly from his lover Greg Tampico, until recently the head of a charity devoted to Namibians in need. Wilson decides the only thing to do is deliver it right back to Tampico, discovering in transit via the many messages on his phone that his lover is dead. Pulled over by the police for ‘distracted driving’, Wilson finds himself in further contravention of a law forbidding illegally poached wild animals thanks to the aardvark stuffed into the boot of his car. It’s an aardvark with a long history, caught by naturalist Richard Ostlet in 1875 and returned at his request to celebrated taxidermist Titus Downing whose reputation for uncannily lifelike poses was renowned. Shortly after Downing took delivery of the aardvark, he received a letter from Ostlet’s widow. Would he come to visit her in London? There he found something both perplexing and macabre.
Anthony alternates the narratives of Wilson and Downing, two very different men whose stories almost mirror each other. Downing is the perfectionist taxidermist, loath to welcome the public through the door of the workshop where he channels his subjects until he captures their spiritual essence. In contrast, Wilson is consumed with ambition and a lust for luxury, obsessed with Ronald Reagan, accessorising himself and his house with Ronnie memorabilia. Both narratives are very funny, Downing’s more understatededly so than Wilson’s which wanders into the farcical. Like all good satire, Anthony’s novel has serious points to make not least about colonialism and its legacy, political corruption and greed. For the squeamish, of which I’m one, there are some look-away moments concerning eyes but these are easily skipped without losing track or sense of the story. It’s slightly bonkers and to begin with I wasn’t at all sure that it would work but it does.
If I’ve whetted your appetite you might like to wander over to Annecdotal where Anne’s hosting a giveaway. Best be quick, though: the deadline’s midnight on 30th April and it’s for UK residents only. Good luck!
Doubleday: London 2020 9780857526991 192 pages Hardback