I can’t remember if I put my hand up to review Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals or if it was sent to me because the publisher’s PR team thought it might be up my alley. Either way, I was pleasantly and slightly surprised and confused when it arrived.
The winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, Fever of Animals is a fictional tale of a narrator named (slightly confusingly) Miles who’s trying to determine what happened to Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu.
Bafdescu disappeared in a forest in 1967. Miles hears about Bafdescu and is intrigued by his mysterious disappearance courtesy of a painting hanging in a Melbourne restaurant.
Still with me?
Let me first say that the premise of this book is intriguing and it undoubtedly hooked me (I would love to know the novel’s creative origins slash backstory). Let me say second that it is exquisitely written—Allinson possesses a lyrical writing skill far above and beyond any I do.
Let me say third that as a non-fiction reader who’ll forgive poor writing as long as the book is plot-driven and actually takes me somewhere, I’m probably not Fever of Animals’ target audience.
I assumed I was about to read a non-fiction book about animal rights ala Eating Animals when I pulled the book from its postal envelope and read the title.
Even having finished it, I still don’t know to what the title refers. If you’ve read it and know what I missed, please let me know. And yes, I feel a little silly—it seems a big thing to have missed.
That’s a three-way way of saying I truly admire the book Allinson’s crafted, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it. I was never caught up in the tale as I so often am by other books. Case in point: I’ve recently found myself re-reading excerpts of, and imploring others to pick up, Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.
I’m still not entirely sure what Fever of Animals was about—that may well be me not being clever enough to discern its points—and my abiding thought both while reading and after finishing its final pages were the ever-dreaded ‘so what?’.
You see, Fever of Animals ruminates on life. It’s quiet and internally focused. Which is great in and of itself. But the book doesn’t really go anywhere—something I struggled with as a time- and brain space-poor reader.
I needed something that would really pull me in, something strong enough to compete with life already demanding huge amounts of my time and attention.
Truth be told, I’m also probably a little too close to the whole ‘lost 20-something wandering around Europe’ trope to be able to view it with any decent perspective.
I’ll never argue a book has to resolve all its plots in neat fashion, but I do like to come away from a book having a sense of something having shifted. Of the character having (forgive the terrible cliché) ‘grown’ or attained some insight into themselves or their circumstances.
Still, there were moments of the novel that wholly impressed me. These include a passage where Miles reflects on flying home to see his dying father: ‘It’s rare, I suppose, that our lives are given such definition, are marked out as clearly as that, so that the part which is over tilts away, and another part—the future, for instance—begins.’
Also, it turns out there’s a (relatively unpronounceable) word for ‘Are you going to keep tickling me in the face in the same spot repeatedly?’
There are these rather memorably bleak passages too:
They say an elephant will stay on its feet for ten days after it’s been shot. They say that some animals can sense a volcano days before it erupts, and that they’d rather kill themselves. In such cases, the water in the bay will teem with drowning snakes.
[smoking]…and I stand with the students there beside the sliding doors, breathing out plumes of toxic smoke towards the rain, like one of those grey patients I remember from the hospital: like someone who feels free to smoke as much as they want now because they are dying from something else.
Despite not being its best reader, I can see why Fever of Animals won the unpublished manuscript award. Allinson is clearly talented and this text would have leapt off the submissions pile.
The book may not be for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for others. It also doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested in reading what Allinson creates after this, his first novel. I look forward to see what he publishes next.