The Dominant Animal: Lean, mean and timeless tales

Book review: Kathryn Scanlan’s collection of stories runs close to the bone but there’s humour too

Kathryn Scanlan claims that she either writes from the point of view of an alien or as though addressing one.

Kathryn Scanlan claims that she either writes from the point of view of an alien or as though addressing one.

A woman cuts her hand while chopping onions. Chilled to the marrow, she passes out, having caught a glimpse of bone: “I saw it, white, swimming in the brimming gash.” This gory incident, which occurs in the collection’s concluding tale, recalls an earlier piece, where an obsessive hunter polishes animal bones “into gleaming white abstractions”. Lean and mean – whittled down to their very viscera – the 40 stories assembled in The Dominant Animal are certainly close to the bone.

As in her novel Aug 9 - Fog (2019) – carved out of a found text – Kathryn Scanlan seems to proceed not by addition but subtraction, like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble. “Ta-da!” (as its title advertises) turns this process into something of a joke. It closes – just as dusk darkens the neighbourhood “from the ground up, like dye climbing a cloth” – with an Old Testament-style bush giving birth to a figure. An arm, leg, and foot gradually emerge, while the female narrator looks on, entranced. “I’ve always been a sucker for origin stories,” she comments, “so I held my breath and waited to see how this one might begin.” Ending with a beginning (this is the last sentence) is a way of neither beginning nor ending, just like newborns in these pages never seem fully alive while the recently deceased never seem quite dead. It is a ruse to tap into the primal darkness while holding it at bay. The book itself ends on a similar, albeit more sinister, note: a shadow springing forth from a dark corner in the protagonist’s backyard, “like a vision of God, gnashing his great white teeth”.

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