Sharon Kernot’s fourth book contains many sweet, darkly beguiling set pieces, which evoke in their way a sense of the beauty that can be seen in nearly anything living or dead.
In the opening pages we meet two girls about 11 years old. One of them has long black hair, dark eyes, a pointy chin and blood-red lips. This is Charlotte. The other is Annie, with hair the colour of wheat at sunset and eyes as blue as a summer sky.
Instead of playing house or riding bikes or jumping rope, they spend their idle hours traipsing round the scrubby edge of a suburb in South Australia with a large hessian sack, looking for dead creatures.
The Art of Taxidermy is a free verse novel in a style reminiscent of successful American writers for young adults such as Sonya Sones, Kelly Bingham and Samantha Schutz. These books are lineated, though they could be set as prose. This one’s a story about a young girl who falls in love not with the idea of death but with its material proof: the fragile bodies that are left behind.
Charlotte is fascinated by the processes of decay and the skeletal remains, by Egyptian tombs and Indigenous death rituals, by roadkill and the gentle art of taxidermy. This last is revealed to her with the power of a destiny.
Her enthralment is partly explained by the number of people in her own life, including her mother, who have died, but it is also an expression of her deeper affinities. As her father observes, justifying his daughter’s behaviour to an appalled busybody of an aunt, Charlotte has the heart of a scientist.
You could argue that The Art of Taxidermy isn’t really a long poem. There are almost no similes nor much in the way of poetic figures of speech, let alone distinct rhythmical or metrical features, and the enjambment tends simply to map the composition of clauses and phrases.
But why quibble over genre? Kernot has created an intriguing tale of mystery and the imagination with a haunting ambience that the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe would recognise and admire. The sparse layout of the lines suggests silences and disappearances and this suits the understatement and gravity of Charlotte’s voice.
This is a delightful story about grief transformed and the urge to resurrect and to re-create. And it speaks on behalf of beauty and sadness and the comforts of that oft-maligned thing – art. JR
Text, 240pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 7, 2018 as "Sharon Kernot, The Art of Taxidermy ".
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