Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong: For those in peril on the sea

Cover image for Falling Animals by Sheila ArmstrongI was delighted to spot Sheila Armstrong’s first novel in the publishing schedules having been so impressed with her short story collection, How to Gut a Fish. That had a touch of the surreal about it which I half expected from Falling Animals, given it’s slightly disconcerting, rather lovely cover, but Armstrong’s novel is not at all fantastical. It spans a year in which the authorities try to trace the identity of a corpse found on an Irish beach one August morning.

Again and again, she comes back to the man’s posture, the unnatural serenity of it. As if he was exactly where he wanted to be.

Oona is out for a walk when she spots a man sitting against a cliff, apparently resting. Coming closer she realises he’s dead, calling the police after popping the wedding band that’s fallen off the well-healed stump of his ring finger into his breast pocket. After she’s given her statement, Oona walks to the village pub to steady her nerves and regale her fellow drinkers with her news. The police can find nothing to identify the man nor any obvious cause of death besides the cancer that the pathologist finds riddling his body. He died within sight of the shipwreck that had caught fire some time ago, some say the work of the shipping company wanting to hurry their long drawn-out insurance claim. Over the year that follows, witnesses will come forward but details are sketchy to say the least. The officer in charge jumps at what seems a lead that will close the case only to feel a fool when it proves to be a fraud. A year to the day after the man’s death, a memorial is unveiled filled with names of those who’ve perished at sea.

The sky is torn like and ancient sail, and a dusting of stars appears through the rip. Day will not break, but the darkness will slowly ease and lighten. For now, they are alive.  

Armstrong’s novel is a mosaic of narratives written from the perspective of villagers, sailors, professionals and witnesses all of whom have some connection with the unidentified man, from the homeless refugee who’s spotted his backpack and made use of it to the Australian priest who thinks he may have met him. Each of their narratives are satisfyingly rounded out with the narrators’ own backstories: some are villagers born and bred like Oona, others are blow-ins like Matias who left his Bogota home aged sixteen. Armstrong deftly weaves these threads into the story of the village whose fortunes have declined over the years, and the shipwreck, one of many along this difficult coastline. Her writing is striking, often poetically so, and there’s a compassion and empathy for those who spend so much of their lives transporting the goods we take for granted at great cost to themselves. Poignantly, in the final chapter the dead are given a voice but the novel ends on a life-affirming note. A very fine debut which reminded me a little of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 in both its structure and the quality of its writing. High praise indeed.

Bloomsbury Books: London ‎ 9781526635853 240 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

22 thoughts on “Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong: For those in peril on the sea”

  1. There’s not a sentence in this review that doesn’t pique my interest. It sounds a satisfying and intriguing read, and I’ve reserved it at the library forthwith. I’ve been meaning to say that you are one of two book bloggers whom I regularly read who really seem to have my reading needs in mind. You have a knack of hitting the spot, as far as I’m concerned.

    1. I’m so pleased to hear that, Margaret. It’s what I loved about being a bookseller all those years ago! May I ask who the other blogger is just in case I’m not following them already?

          1. It is. They work so hard, bringing authors in to talk, getting themselves into schools, running Story Times, all kinds of events, as well of course as extremely popular book groups.

    2. I love the sound of this novel. Intriguing and compelling interspersed with the interesting nature how professionals go about establishing identity.

  2. I’ve just read this one too Susan and liked it very much. Some of the writing was very beautiful and although I thought some sections veered too far from the central narrative, she brought the mystery to a very thoughtful end. I remember this story when it was happening in real life and it totally captured the country for a while.

  3. As I was reading your review I was reminded of Reservoir 13 so I’m really pleased to hear that it matches that in quality – high praise! This does sound excellent and I really like the striking cover.

  4. I had just added this one to my wishlist on the basis of another review, so you’ve now firmly cemented its place there and pushed it up my priority list! Sounds interesting, and the quotes are very appealing…

  5. I too was thinking of Reservoir 13 as I was reading your review which has really piqued my interest. Sounds as if the author has packed a lot in to what is a relatively short book.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.