Book review: Fragile Animals, by Genevieve Jagger

Vampires should ideally be eerie and erotic, writes Stuart Kelly, but sadly the blood-suckers in this debut novel are neither

I would hazard a guess that I am neither the target demographic nor a member of the ideal readership for Fragile Animals. The jacket gives the following précis come elevator pitch: “When an ex-Catholic woman develops a sexual relationship with a vampire, she is forced to confront the memories that haunt her religious past”, this past being “her blasphemous sexuality, and the love she lost while stuck in the closet”. The author, Genevieve Jagger, further describes herself as “a queer writer & witch… a Scorpio, a sinner, and quite distinctly autistic”.

I should say that it is never a good idea to judge a codger by his corduroys. I am unfazed by the content of this novel; indeed I have read and enjoyed work by William Martin (formerly Poppy Z Brite) and Tanith Lee, especially Elle Est Trois (La Mort). Heck, I’ve read Bataille, Lautréamont, de Sade and Angela Carter on de Sade (far better than the original), and the nihilistic horror of Brian Evenson and Thomas Ligotti. The novel name-checks both Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Twilight. I was surprised it didn’t throw in Interview With The Vampire, not least because Anne Rice has her own theological stake to twirl with the Christ the Lord and the Songs of the Seraphim series. But here’s the rub. I have no problem with sexy vampires, but I rather prefer them to be both eerie and erotic. This is neither.

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To expand on the synopsis. The central character, Noelle, is a published poet, but makes her living as a hotel cleaner. Her poetry was published by her father’s new girlfriend’s gay brother Lorne, who has rejected her second collection, and she has an intense, currently broken off, friendship with another cleaner, an artist called Lomie, short for Paloma. Since her father has converted to Satanism after her mother ran off with a Catholic priest, whose illegitimate child she bullied, Noelle has taken herself away to Bute to write and recover, where she meets Miss Cairstine Fraser, who runs the hotel, cooks casseroles and has a baby pink Mini Cooper, and her friend the Rev. Macardle (Noelle has “always despised Macs in all variations”, for reasons never explained) who is also medium and looks like Dumbledore. Both are possibly symbolic but more likely they are merely eccentrics, with quirks instead of personalities. Finally, we have the aforementioned vampire, Moses, who is also a taxidermist. Books in books are always indicators of sorts. Moses reads the “lecherous” Charles Bukowski, unnamed “Stoic Russian philosophers” and the lesbian poet Mary Oliver, who famously wanted to be “a bride married to amazement”. I confess to being stumped by these clues, if such they are.

Genevieve JaggerGenevieve Jagger
Genevieve Jagger

Novels themselves are fragile animals. It takes very little to puncture the meniscus of belief. There are numerous such lapses here. Given the wingspan of a swan, it could not conceivably leave an imprint of itself on a window. In another scene, Noelle hears a bird’s bones “crunch” as it hits a stained-glass window, but the fracture doesn’t seem to impede its flight. Noelle’s book “was well received” although they “didn’t print many copies. Like fifty”. That’s not publishing, that’s photocopying. I run off more copies of the parish magazine.

As for the publishing of this, there is scant evidence of editorial control. Pathetic fallacy or the personification of natural phenomena are high risk techniques and not to be used lightly or frequently. Here they are frantically cluttered: “She [the sea] is lit tonight by a toothy moon, and the two of them seem to be conspiring. The ocean tuts at me subtly with every lap of the shore; the moon doesn’t care about staring and her harsh gaze prickles on my cheeks… huddled in by the mainland as we are, the sky and the shore look like sisters”. Such hyperbole is like literary cochineal; a little will colour the whole glass. Reading reams of it is like gorging on candy-floss.

Gauche style might be overlooked if the moral – even the immoral – were strong. Instead, it is hardly original. Of course, the whole vampire and religion schtick masquerades as being terribly taboo and transgressive. So we get speeches such as “When you really think about The Church, like the whole thing, the big looming mass of it, you realise contradiction is rife every turn. Love thy neighbour but not thy gay neighbour. The very act with which you were conceived” – I think that should be “by which” – “is also the ultimate carnal sin and we can’t all be virgin mothers. God’s will is perfect so better not think about genocide. Let the c*** be buried in the very soil that he perverted”. The church has actually genuinely wrestled with these issues. This, however, is not righteous anger but second-hand petulance.

Fragile Animals, by Genevieve Jagger, 404 Ink, £10.99