The New Animals by Pip Adam – book review

by Anna Rogers / 29 July, 2017

Pip Adam: intelligent, perceptive and original. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

Pip Adam’s second novel gets better when it takes a leap into the surreal.

Setting: Auckland, 2016.

Cast: Carla and Duey, weary fortysomething hairdressers, and their contemporary, Sharona; entitled millennial trio Tommy, Cal and Kurt, who run a fashion label; and young stylist Elodie. Also significant is Carla’s murderous, flat-destroying dog, a bitch named Doug.

As Carla leads us into The New Animals, along Karangahape Rd to the city’s creative hub, the authentic and vivid sense of place that marks the novel is immediately evident. Her destination is the workroom of the boys’ business, where a crisis over a photo shoot is looming or perhaps being manufactured.

At this point, difficulties with the writing style kick in. Pip Adam’s machine-gun-like sentences, all similarly constructed, are perhaps intended to evoke the brittle, superficial world she is describing, but the overuse of names, repeated words and hyper-attention to quotidian detail too easily feel relentless. Everything is spelt out – where people are standing, what they’re thinking, their gestures, even such actions as plugging in a hairdryer. At the same time, though, the writing is oddly opaque; with so much on the page, readers are left too little room for imaginative response.

The characters are problematic. Those in Adam’s debut novel, I’m Working on a Building, were not easy to care about, and The New Animals runs the same risk. The most compelling and successfully drawn personality is Carla, damaged, wry, desperate, feeling her age.

Of course, Adam intends to convey the self-destructiveness and self-absorption of almost everyone in the book, in both generations, but again there is a danger of reader impatience.

The book fails to cohere structurally. This is a novel of two halves: the intense examination of the characters at work and at home, and then a surreal, lyrical section in which Elodie steals Doug and swims out into the harbour, fleeing pervasive 21st-century angst and materialism, becoming a new animal. Although this part is too long, the writing here is of a finer and more memorable order, but the sudden switch in focus and approach is disconcerting.

The book would have been helped by more attentive and thoughtful editing at all levels, from overall shape and narrative balance down to such needless irritations as several characters whose names start with “D”.

Adam is intelligent, perceptive and original, with a challenging take on the world and a capacity for sharp flashes of humour and irony. The New Animals stays in the mind and its theme has promise, but this would have been a far more satisfying novel had it looked beyond the preoccupations of the author, and her characters, to the readers and let them in.

THE NEW ANIMALS, by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $30)

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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