Naomi Booth’s short story collection delves into the nocturnal happenings of both animals and humans, revealing worlds that are closely intertwined in all the beauty, ugliness, and honesty of nature.
Animals at Night by Naomi Booth, a cuttingly haunting yet comforting short story collection, explores the relationship between animals and humans in the darkest hours. Nature becomes beautiful in its ugliness, and life more simple in the dark than in the day. Through a range of people, perceptions, and places, Booth examines the nocturnal happenings of animals, where the endless cycle of life and death carries on as humans both watch and partake.
Nature is un-human in the most human of ways. And Animals at Night begins with the most human of stories: in ‘Strangers’, Liz, our narrator, must go on a road trip with her dead mother, who requested said trip as her dying wish. There is comedy at first; she wraps her mother’s body up and places it into the back of her van, leading to the body rolling over and her mother’s now cold feet poking out. We are reminded that, in such situations, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry, and Liz sits perpetually on the cusp of both. She also reflects on her life’s choices and re-examines family relationships, when the trip reminds her of what she lacks. Yet it is the “kindness of strangers” she is most touched by as she finally immerses her mother back into the earth, burying her in farmland with the help of a kindly man; releasing her mother back to the night and to nature as they lie in the darkness alone.
Travelling through life is where humans feel most alone or at peace. Booth harnesses that fact, positing her characters in positions of aloneness, or alone alongside their own spawn; their infant children who impact their experiences by being something to protect, nurture, or as being something that causes angst or loss of identity. Everything, too, is entirely interconnected: when Liz calls her mother an “elderly stillborn” we think, what is truly the difference between just born and near death?
In ‘Cluster’, we watch a window-peeping woman, breastfeeding at night and therefore awake in the early hours, too cautious to wake her partner, become immersed in the existence of others. She observes a man and woman walking home; they laugh, they bicker, they argue, until one night it all becomes more sinister. The woman is given the opportunity to help, to do something other than feed her baby. The night, in this instance, holds utter possibility. Booth creates intense depth of character without naming the baby, and giving us only tiny glimpses into the happenings of our waking woman during her hidden daylight hours. We gain insight into her character by watching her listen to the night’s “Howling. Singing. Silence.”
While motherhood bares great strength throughout, it also causes fixations and a need to escape. As in ‘Cluster’, the titular story ‘Animals at Night’ focuses on one such mother who loses herself after giving birth. On her first trip away with her friends since becoming a mother, she is unable to let go of her overwhelming maternal instincts. She worries about her daughter swallowing stones, her partner’s ability to be a father, and experiences an aversion to partaking in the non-parenting activities that her friends revel in. Ultimately, this peaks when the friends come across a dying rabbit, mauled with a mutilated face. She cannot stop thinking about the rabbit much in the same way in which she cannot stop thinking about her child, and in the night, wishing to put it out of its misery, ventures off alone to kill it. Whether its suffering is reflective of her own and she feels she must put an end to it, or whether the murder is a kindness brought on by her mothering instinct, is left to the reader, but the sense of responsibility the woman feels cannot be shaken by her friend’s assurances, and so she must set the rabbit free. While it brings both the rabbit and the woman peace, the presence of death shows how “Every new joy [is] unhinged with grief like this.”
Yet, although Booth subtly illuminates life’s madnesses, there are moments of reprieve too. ‘Plausible Objects’is a whiplash quick story with brutal beginnings, and bemusing reflections about the ridiculousness of humans, but which ultimately provides light relief. And in ‘Forever Chemicals’, a girl finds solace from heartbreak in the creatures of the deep that otherwise repulse her. She is rejected by an old time love, and perhaps now craves the danger this creature initially presented. It is not only death that Booth explores, but love too. Though perhaps death and love are forever intertwined?
Ultimately, the feminine angle of Booth’s collection shows us the strong connection between women and animals, and that the most disturbing, truthful, and intriguing things always seem to happen at night – perhaps this is why Booth sets it as her stage. Animals are forced to give up their young early on, their motherhood is never placed with significance; the final story, ‘Sour Hall’, interlinks humans and animals in this honest way. Cattle are reared, milked, and almost separated from calves, until one would-be mother’s own trauma causes the farmers to rethink their unkindness. Simultaneously, their farm is haunted by a ‘baggot’, a creature of menace and bad luck. Whether this baggot is an animal or a mystical creature can only be determined by the reader, but ultimately, the kinship with otherness these women find at night leads them on a path to betterment. A calf is sent to stud rather than to be eaten.
In the end, Animals at Night only edges on horror because of the humans that inhabit it. We feel innately close to them, and watch them die as we watch our own people die. We mourn their loss of life as we see our own slip away. With a tenderness that could be easily seen as soft if written by another hand, and haunting prose that can be found her previous novels, through an adventure of animals, Booth brings new honesty to humans. Because ultimately, humans are animals too.
Naomi Booth’s Animals at Night is published by Dead Ink Books, and is available to order online and from all good bookshops.
Feature image: Naomi Booth, courtesy of Dead Ink Books