Animals is Unsworth’s second novel, following her début, Hungry, The Stars and Everything, and the new book resembles its predecessor in that it’s about romantic disarray and existential choices with a sprinkling of astrophysics. Animals is dissimilar to Hungry, though, in that it’s less artificially structured (the earlier book was plotted around an elaborate restaurant taster menu), it lacks the supernatural tints, and it’s predominantly about female friendship and how one can go about carving out some semblance of individuality in the face of pressure from all angles: mates, partners, parents, siblings, the whole gamut of society. And while Hungry was fairly erroneously presented as chick-lit, the new book is being more accurately marketed as a kind of riotous feminist manifesto. Think Girls and Withnail, as the blurb suggests, but cross them with Alan Warner’s The Sopranos by way of Helen Cross’ My Summer of Love, and you’ll be in the right territory.
Laura Joyce is a writer in her early thirties – a writer who’s not getting much writing done between her call-centre shifts, her epic boozing sessions with best friend Tyler, her dad’s cancer treatments, the preparations for her looming wedding to Jim, a classical musician who’s constantly on tour, and the paralyzing attacks of the ‘existentials’ that make her question what it is she actually wants out of life, relationships and friendships. The text follows her around as it all spirals, or staggers, madly out of control – as Laura and Jim drift apart, egged on by Tyler, as a charming (read sleazy) academic called Marty tries it on with her. Laura and Tyler’s disheveled lifestyle set the tone: pills fuel their ‘adventures’, and the hangovers are palpable: Laura wakes up on Jim’s sofa, ‘Pterodactyl-like, my hands up like claws near my chest. […] All the warning lights across the dash of my forehead were blinking.’ ‘The way the day begins,’ she tells the reader, ‘decides the shade of everything.’ Well, the book begins with Laura inadvertently tied to Tyler’s bed, trying to cope with a ‘liquefying headrush’, and as it progresses, the theme of shackles and restraints is prominent: Laura’s relationship with the self-destructive (if loyal and weirdly, near-pathologically, affectionate) Tyler, and that with Jim, a recent convert to teetotalism, seem to tie her to particular paths that don’t quite click with her abortive dreams of writing.
Unsworth makes us ponder what binds us to one another – habit, aspiration, addiction, sexual attraction or love? How can you tell which is which, and where do the boundaries lie? The characterisation here is superb: while a couple of minor characters feel somewhat flat (the various siblings, for instance, particularly Jean, Tyler’s sister, who slots in as a cautionary tale against both parenthood and excessive partying), the main cast is notable for never descending into the stereotypes of debauched or straight-laced straw men that they might so easily have become. Laura’s oscillation between lifestyle possibilities is hauntingly realistic for a woman of her generation; Tyler’s jealous, damaged clinginess is balanced with a blasting sense of humour (the dialogue throughout the book is flawless) and her conniving ways are partnered with a solicitude and vulnerability that makes us root for her even as we’re hoping Laura wedges some distance between them.
Unsworth’s prose is pitch-perfect: her idioms are spot-on for the nineties generation, for club kids and artists and literary academics, for the working class woman who lives in an urban eco-coop and obsesses over the Higgs boson. She negotiates all these switches in register so smoothly that there’s never any sense of disconnection. Rather, it all contributes to a rounded portrait of a character (Laura, of course) who’s both a Mancunian everywoman and a specific, exhausted, bewildered individual. And, while we’re on the topic: the book’s a paean to Manchester: from the Green Quarter of the Blairite yuppie, to the hipsters of Hulme, to the multitude of city-centre wine-bars and clubs and hidden libraries and cafes. The Joycean references flow thick and fast, what with Laura’s last name and writing career, and while this is a little heavy-handed for an otherwise slick text, Unsworth’s partial mapping of the city is a quiet and considered nod to her character’s namesake. Finally, while we won’t give any spoilers, the ending smacks a sharp nail into the chick-lit coffin – if anyone were fool enough to try and lump Unsworth in that category in the first place. If you think it veers too far the other way, to glamorizes drunken ladies, then you’re mistaken – the text smartly draws attention to every easy headline and stereotype, with the characters themselves offering razor-sharp critiques of misogynistic clichés and the expected narrow narratives of wifehood and childbearing hat are forced upon women both in life and in literature. Laura and Tyler, scathing of mortgage-speak and nappy-chat, are figures we all know – they’re us, they’re our friends – but they’re not characters we’ve seen much of in literature, hitherto. Warner’s Sopranos, and its sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, might have paved the way: what he did for female representation in Scotland, Unsworth’s doing in the north of England.
Any Cop?: Clever, entertaining and fantastically readable (Stella Rimington oughta love it), this book straddles the literary/popular divide so neatly there’ll be no justice if it isn’t a hit. If you hate booze and drugs, you might feel wary, but remember: it’s a study in friendship above all else. One for your best mate – female or male – or maybe for that one lingering relative who’s still mumbling about appropriate behavior.