Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

published 2015


The Northern Quarter, Friday, October. Tyler and I had gone drinking after our shifts. By 8pm we were ten drinks in, wedding-drunk and almost dancing. Over by the bar I saw him stirring his drink. It wasn’t the kind of place you stirred your drink (no ice, no fruit, no straws of dubious cleanliness) so I knew something was up. After I’d been watching for a few seconds he looked at me and back to his drink. Another two seconds, me, his drink.

Game on

Tyler was sitting next to me, her head drooping as she looked at her phone. A few feet away, the sound periodically blunted by gyrating bodies, ‘She’s a Rainbow’ by World of Twist belted out from a bass speaker.

‘Tyler,’ I shouted over the music, ‘do you fancy a shot?’

‘Tequila,’ she said without looking up. ‘I had too much sambucca on Tuesday, I can still feel it coating my tonsils. And he’s gay but go for your life.’

Animals 2

commentary: Animals is narrated by Laura: she and her friend and landlady Tyler are hovering round 30, doing dead-end jobs, and spend every weekend (and some weekdays) getting trashed on drink and drugs, going to clubs and parties, taking whatever life sends along. Both are smart (well…) and educated – they have just hung on after graduating, never looking for more in life.

But Laura is engaged – her fiancĂ©e Jim used to match her for drinking but has now given up, and wants to think about their future together. Tyler hates the idea of losing her partner-in-crime, and the book details increasingly mad moments where Laura parties hard and stupidly with Tyler, then rushes to try to make Jim happy.

The book is extremely well-written, and very funny and clever, and very authentic-seeming. It’s also wince-making as you watch Laura mess up over and over. I am full of admiration for Unsworth.

But – it is completely lacking in any surprises. Given that opening setup, every single stage of the plot is entirely predictable. Once I started reading, the trajectory seemed glaringly obvious, and although we were shown increasingly inventive ways of living a dissipated life, there wasn’t any way out. It wasn’t as if it was going to end up that this lifestyle was in any way good, beneficial, creditable, sustainable. The book has been described as an ode to friendship – and while, again, the description and dialogue of Tyler and Laura’s interactions are brilliant and convincing and funny: well, the relationship surely is toxic and dysfunctional and not doing either of them any good. There really isn’t any way round that, in terms of a novel? The final glimpse we see of Tyler hammers that home. And I think in the end I liked Jim more than the author did. But I could have written on a slip of paper, as I reached page 20, what I thought the final 20 pages would show.

But what a fabulous writer Unsworth is, so accomplished and readable and clever – I look forward to more books by her….

The title (I read in a review) comes from a 1950 poem by blog favourite Frank O’Hara poem, see website here.
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
-- a stunning poem, and one of the best matches of epigraph to book that I have ever come across.

The picture of a Manchester nightclub was taken by Paul Holloway and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. The Hipster Guide cover is from the website Travels of Adam, which advises on the best places to go….


  1. It says a lot about the writer's skill, I think, when you can tell twenty pages in exactly what will happen - but you still enjoy the book. I made some predictions just from your post! Still, if Unsworth can make you care about the characters (or at least, want to follow what happens to them) and adds in some wit, too, then it seems the book was well worth reading.

    1. Yes, I feel I was a bit harsh, given how much I enjoyed the book overall, but I think I just wanted it to be even better.

  2. Moira, I can be mersmerised by good and clever writing. The spell is broken only when I reach the end of last page. This is usually followed by mild remorse. There is no guarantee the next book will be as engaging.

    1. That's a very good description of a certain kind of reading experience Prashant...

  3. The writer is very young (at least from where I'm standing!) so has plenty of time to develop. This doesn't seem like my kind of book, but perhaps it would have been when I was the same age as the protagonists.

    1. Yes, I know what you mean - they did seem young to me, but at the same time they were hanging on too long to their dissolute youth. If I say that Unsworth is a very competent writer it sounds as if am damning her with faint praise, but I mean the opposite: it wasn't like a young person's early book, it was so well-done...

  4. I suppose that it's difficult to spring too many surprises on the reader in a story like this. I've never read it, but there aren't too many options. It's been described as WITHNAIL with girls, and as funny as it is, that movie is essentially a rather tragic story about what happens to people who refuse to leave adolescence behind them. Like you say, this sort of lifestyle isn't sustainable for any lengh of time. It reminds me of someone I knew whose life seemed to consist of endless round of sex and booze. Fine when you're twenty, but he was still carrying on that way in his mid to late thirties. The last I saw of him, his marriage had fallen apart, he was estranged from his children, he had lost his job, he had lost his house, and he was bloated, dissipated and heading for forty without any intention of changing the way that he lived. It's the real story of Peter Pan without the magic dust.

    1. Oh dear, yes, I think we all know someone like that, and very depressing it is too. And Unsworth does a good job showing the attractions of the lifestyle AND the downsides.

  5. In a way, this book sounds as bleak as the espionage fiction I have been reading. The bleakness does not keep me from enjoying it, but I do have to temper unhappy reads with something more upbeat.

    1. The lives they lead are quite bleak, and OTT, but there is a certain humanity and joy for living there too... Yes I know just what you mean, sometimes on finishing a book your heart cries out for something cheerful.


Post a Comment