Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: A review

Some of the reviews that I read of this book described it as a comic novel. Those reviewers must have read a different book than I did. 

Admittedly there are some moments of black humor but mostly this is a story about a grieving family that is unable to reach out to each other and communicate their need for understanding and love. These are some seriously mixed up folks in the mold of characters that we've come to expect in novels set in Florida.

This one is set in Central Florida and is Kristen Arnett's first novel. It features a family of taxidermists who are tortured by a couple of tragedies from which they seem to be unable to recover and move on.

We meet the family through Arnett's narrator, Jessa-Lynn Morton. Jessa-Lynn is the child of a taxidermist. She has a younger brother, Milo, but Jessa-Lynn is the one who is close to her father and wants to follow in his footsteps. Her happiest times are those she spends at his side learning the art of taxidermy, along with the need to treat the dead animals with respect and dignity. She is assumed to be his successor in the trade. Milo is the more sensitive of the two and goes his own way.

The succession comes sooner than expected. Jessa walks into the taxidermy shop one morning to find her father's dead body on one of the tables. He had shot himself (he had been suffering from cancer) and left a note for Jessa apologizing and asking her to handle things. And Jessa does.

But before this tragedy, there was Brynn. Brynn was Jessa's best - maybe only - friend growing up. They were always close but as they hit puberty, the character of their relationship changed. Jessa was in love with Brynn and Brynn was a flirt and a tease. The inevitable happened. They became involved in a sexual relationship. That relationship was complicated by the fact that Milo was also in love with Brynn and Brynn wanted a marriage and children. At the same time, she also wanted to continue having sex with Jessa. Since Brynn usually got what she wanted, that was the way it played out; she married Milo and continued the affair with Jessa. From her perspective, the Jessa/Milo duo made one perfect spouse. But then she became discontented and, with no warning, left town with a man she had just met, leaving everyone including her two children behind. Jessa and Milo were devastated.

Meanwhile, Jessa and Milo's mother, Libby. carried on, holding the family together as best she could. She took care of her grandchildren while their father worked. Or didn't. But once her husband committed suicide, it freed her in a way that she had not experienced before. Her husband had had a controlling personality and he had prevented her from expressing her artistic talent. Once he was gone, that talent began to express itself in some unique ways. She began to go into the taxidermy shop and take some of the animals that her husband had worked on and pose them together in lewd tableaux in the shop windows. Jessa was appalled and begged her to stop. But in fact, the art was quite popular with some of the public.

As Arnett tells her story, she switches the action back and forth from past to present in a very satisfying way. It enables us to understand the motives of her characters. We might want to grab them by the shoulders and vigorously shake some sense into them, but we understand them. How she manages to resolve the issues besetting the family requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. The ending, after all the drama, was maybe a little too perfect. But that is a very tiny quibble about a hugely satisfying read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



  1. What an unusual story! As you know, I have a thing for debut novels.

    1. As do I, and we are blessed with a plethora of outstanding first novels these days. I couldn't do this one justice but it is a winner.

  2. Replies
    1. So do I. But I don't avoid stories about them, especially when they are this good!

  3. Kristen arnett is best fiction writer and i love this book.


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