Magnificently Grotesque

Reviewed by Alicia Fahey

Can the grotesque also be beautiful? The answer to this question, according to Wendy MacIntyre and Jim Nason, is a resounding “yes.” In their respective novels Hunting Piero and Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals, MacIntyre and Nason expose readers to the darkest sides of humanity: envy, lust, addiction, and murder. Following the tradition of animal allegory, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, animal symbolism plays a central role in both novels; most notable among these animals are the “magnificently grotesque” hybrid creatures that, in various ways, represent the human condition as an existential struggle.

The protagonist of Hunting Piero is Agnes Vane, a simian-looking woman whose identity quest is complicated by the cruel reactions that her unconventional facial features evoke from others. When Agnes discovers the artwork of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo, she connects deeply with his depictions of animal and human-animal hybrids like the “magnificently grotesque” monster (“part crocodile, part rhinoceros, part duck-billed platypus”) in the painter’s rendering of Perseus rescuing Andromeda.

Agnes enrols in university to further her study of di Cosimo’s universe. At first, she performs her scholarly duties with efficiency and ease, until she discovers an animal rights activist group that leads her down a rabbit hole of drama, scandal, and murder. Agnes is traumatized by the dark turn that her life has taken, and the novel follows her struggle to reclaim her self-control. In the end, she finds peace and begins to heal, a process that is facilitated by the empathy of another animal lover, Peter “Pinto” Devraig, whose variegated skin pigmentation wins him both his nickname and Agnes’ affection. The result is an uplifting ending, though perhaps it could have been reached in less than five hundred pages. While the chapters written from di Cosimo’s perspective provide some historical context for his art, one wonders if this information could have been incorporated into the main plot, thereby keeping the narrative focus on Agnes’ and Peter’s character development.

Hybrid creatures and provocative art also figure prominently in Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals, in part through the eccentric Skye Rayburn, a veterinarian who excels at her profession but struggles to express love and affection in her human relationships. When her daughter Moira dies tragically in a car accident, Skye is left to raise her two-year-old grandson, Duncan. Duncan’s father, unable to cope with the grief of losing Moira, succumbs to a life of alcoholism that leaves him homeless on the streets of Toronto.

Like Agnes, Duncan experiences social isolation during his childhood. He finds companionship from his grandmother, animals, and his imaginary friends (whose existence he maintains throughout the novel). One of these “imaginary” creatures is the spirit of a hundred thousand dead animals, which “looks like a prehistoric elephant and smells like lavender and formaldehyde. Black as a crow, her tusks are long as a horse’s ribs, and she sways from side to side like a snake.” The spirit of a hundred thousand dead animals (an expression Nason first encountered as a colleague’s description of the dissection room at Edinburgh’s Royal Dick Veterinary College) performs various metaphorical functions throughout the novel. It is “every dead animal [Skye had] ever cured or euthanized”; it is Duncan’s subconscious effort to manifest his absent father; it is the embodiment of Skye herself; it is a metaphor for interconnection. Distinct from Skye’s taxonomy of animals in her journal, “Life Lessons for Duncan” (in which she describes animals by scientific classifications and human attributes), the spirit of a hundred thousand dead animals is malleable and fluid, with a trace of the supernatural. This creature/concept provides comfort and companionship for Duncan and, significantly, inspires his art. While at first readers might be challenged by Skye’s abrasive personality and the non-linear timeline that travels between Kincardine, Ontario and Edinburgh, Scotland, this novel is an understated saga of complex characters and subtle, yet poignant imagery right to the very end.

Both Hunting Piero and Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals are replete with animal metaphors that blur the boundaries separating humans from animals. Though very different in writing style, both novels promote lessons in empathy and challenge readers to see the world from a different perspective by viewing it as a magnificently grotesque amalgamation of seemingly incongruous parts. The teachers of this lesson, in both cases, are the artists and the animals that inspire them.

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