Available now in bookstores nationwide.
I haven’t read any of Kate Mosse’s books before and was told that I was in for a treat. She is most famous for her novel Labyrinth. Her latest book, The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a gothic fiction set just before World War One in a village in England. The book is rather fascinating − I’d love to spend some time with a book club discussing the themes in the book.
Connie Gifford lives with her father, the taxidermist, in a large house alongside the Fishbourne marshes, somewhat apart from the rest of the village. The house is also the workplace for the father’s now dwindling taxidermy business. While she is the taxidermist’s daughter, she is the only one in the household doing any taxidermy, as her father is a rather physically absent character spending his days drinking.
The profession of taxidermy holds them as separate from the community, and as it is no longer as desirable for families to have stuffed animals in the home, the business is seen as somewhat strange. Connie herself has lost all her childhood memories after a terrible fall as a child and suffers the occasional seizure as a result. Connie is portrayed as very self-contained individual, but never described as lonely. Her only thoughts are of her father, her work and trying to recover her memory. It is only when she finds something in common with a new acquaintance, midway through the story, that you get much sense of how lonely she is.
Why read this book? The setting is richly described and hangs heavily over the story. The setting is dark, omnipresent and a threat in itself. It is beautifully described. As I read I could vividly picture watching this on TV with a cast of well known British actors playing the key roles. Actually, when I think about it, the book feels like a TV adaptation of a book. I am left with a great sense of dark imagery, superficial understanding of the intentions or characters of those involved and a rather suspiciously neat ending.
The setting in this book is so richly described, often at the expense of character development. I excitedly read the last third of the book, as it was clear that the culmination of a natural disaster and the answer to ‘whodunnit’ would merge. I was rather let down. The answer to many of the questions of the book were simultaneously complex, straightforward and all were underdeveloped in the plot. The villians of the piece were barely known to me. This was a let down, but I think that I had started to feel as though the book was a standard crime story − and was disappointed when it didn’t really fit this kind of narrative. The book is rather more of a historical fiction with a very small snapshot into a few dramatic days in a village.
Taxidermy, naturally plays a part and contributes to the dark setting. It is clear that Connie sees her approach to taxidermy as an art. Her thoughts while preparing a bird:
“Connie turned the jackdaw over in her hands, examining it thoroughly, and decided to continue. The flesh hadn’t become sticky and it was a beautiful creature; she didn’t want to let it go to waste. This was the moment when it would begin to transform from something dead into an object of beauty that would live for ever. The essence of the bird, caught by her craft and her skill, at one distinct moment.”
Her relationship with another character is cemented by their love of art − of finding beauty and truth in their work whether it is a stuffed bird, or painted portrait. I found it fascinating that both these characters have scenes where they are unsatisfied with their work.
A minor theme is that of justice. It is clear from the beginning of the book that a great injustice has occurred − but how differently those victimised by the event perceive a suitable punishment is fascinating to me. The central victim chooses a grotesque punishment for the offenders, but ultimately the punishments are attributed to something else, and the offender’s reputations are seemingly left intact. Those left behind just move on (and, given the epilogue is set in April 1913) you realise in the end that there is no happily-ever-after truly available.
For some fun, look at Twitter – #taxidermyselfie. It links with Kate Mosse’s website.
Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming
The Taxidermist’s Daughter
by Kate Mosse
Published by Orion Publishing