The stories in Cathy Stonehouse’s debut collection depict life as a series of sad, violent, and sometimes insane acts. Fittingly, they are populated by sad, violent, and sometimes insane characters. This is not uplifting, syrupy beach reading. Something About the Animal is a dark, often unsettling book that remains true to its own gloomy fictional universe.
Wicked deeds abound: murder, rape, molestation, beatings, imprisonment, and animal torture are all featured in Something About the Animal. For some of Stonehouse’s characters, a horror suffered or witnessed leads to near or complete psychosis. They live in an altered state where the real world mingles with the visions and voices inside their heads. Violence – genuine or imagined, self-inflicted or otherwise – is their common escape route.
Despite so much misery, happiness is not altogether absent in Something About the Animal. It is, however, subject to interpretation. In “A Little Winter,” Jen reminisces about how her father’s frequent beatings of her mother sounded like the “slap of fresh dough” and how she had “(made) comfort of this.” In “The Stockholm Syndrome,” Susan, imprisoned by her boyfriend Anton and subjected to brutal assaults, uses the word “bliss” to describe her situation. Another character with a violent boyfriend, Shelley, in “Salt and Clay,” feels a sense of “cleansing” when Matt breaks her arm; “a wound that took away what hope was left.” Like a gas that becomes liquid in the absence of sufficient heat, it’s this elimination of hope that alters what happiness means. In a book so dark, a complete lack of happiness would have been reasonable, if unremarkable. Stonehouse adds a layer of nuance to her work by changing the parameters by which happiness is defined.
Stonehouse turns the lights down even more with her depiction of would-be protectors. The aforementioned, arm-breaking Matt shows his caring side when, wishing to keep Shelley safe from a murderer on the loose in the neighbourhood, he roughly pushes her onto the bed and orders her to stay inside, even as he himself goes out. In “A Little Winter,” Jen is a veteran of anti-nuclear proliferation demonstrations and a resident of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Despite her non-violent appearance, however, Jen harbours a violent streak. Before entering the Camp, she slapped her two stepsons “soundly” and repeatedly, and in the Camp fantasizes about “setting fire to its inhabitants.” At every turn, there is peril. Even when a genuinely nice person surfaces, like doting husband Jeffrey in “Ravenous Hours,” peace is hard to come by. Standard logic might dictate that the pregnant and near-incessantly hungry Gloria should appreciate his efforts to feed her, as well as for the way he “treads lightly through the jungle of her hormones,” but Jeffrey instead becomes an object of her contempt. Within the gloomy realm of Something About the Animal, this makes perfect sense.
Cathy Stonehouse performs a delicate balancing act with her first book by presenting troubling subject matter with precise and expressive prose. Even the saddest moments are sometimes beautifully rendered. In “A Special Sound,” young Gaynor’s sick mother “died so fast that even the morning after there was still half a homemade Battenburg cake in the rose-patterned tin for (the family) to finish.” In this way, Something About the Animal brings us to a dark place but leaves just enough light on to make it through the night.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize.