Animals, by Emma Jane Unsworth, Canongate, RRP£12.99, 256 pages
Emma Jane Unsworth’s comically bibulous second novel, Animals, takes its title from a Frank O’Hara poem that reflects on the joyously boozy life led by two friends before the responsibilities of adulthood set in.
The novel’s main character, Tyler, an American-born wild child, is an alcoholic mess of self-pity and gleeful irresponsibility. Set in post-2008 recession Britain, Animals follows the lives of two highly educated women in their early thirties, who have stayed on in Manchester after university; they sleep around, take drugs and nurse their thumping heads with a hair (or more often a tuft) of the dog that bit them. Tyler does not want to go to rehab because she enjoys the illusion of drink-fuelled happiness (what James Joyce called “tighteousness”). She wears a wine-stained kimono and has the wandering, glazed eye of the hardened spirit-abuser.
Laura, her best friend, is an English literature graduate with aspirations to write. Herself in thrall to booze, she struggles to hold down a low-paid job in a call-centre and spends most of her time with Tyler, spouting poetry and indulging in multi-day benders involving ecstasy pills. With her outraged innards and her tongue pale and furry in the bathroom mirror, Laura is portrayed as a lost woman in need of help. Its pages spiked with drinker’s slang (“boshed”, “vommed”, “boaked”), Animals charts the pair’s friendship as it lurches through a succession of men and ever larger servings of tequila.
Unsworth’s street-savvy novel belongs to a current trend in British fiction for novels by female authors that chronicle dissipation, sexual experimentation and substance abuse among modern women, such as Zoe Pilger’s recent and well-received Eat My Heart Out. Such books reject the man-chasing, Bridget Jones-like heroines of the 1990s in favour of gleefully foul-mouthed characters in search of the ultimate high.
Tyler, who has no faith in redemption through marriage, is appalled when Laura’s fiancé Jim decides to become teetotal for the sake of his career. Is abstention the path to marital happiness? Hardly. Tyler resolves to dissuade her friend from marriage.
Jim, a concert pianist, turns out to be smug in his sobriety (Laura will have “more chance of conceiving” if she stops drinking, he tells her). A froideur sets in after Laura discovers that he has been unfaithful to her. Miserably, she pushes on with writing her novel – about a priest who falls in love with a talking pig.
Unsworth, who won a Betty Trask Award for her debut novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything (2011), is a name to watch. Her mock heroic chapter headings (“An Inspiring Encounter that Causes Our Hero to Sleep Under a Bush”) have an air of 18th-century picaresque – the spirit of Moll Flanders is never far. With a boozer’s self-denial, Tyler seems determined to debauch her life away. (“You know how it is Saturday afternoon. You wake up and you can’t move”, the novel begins.) Throughout, she insists on alcohol’s essential beneficence and ability to uplift and even nourish.
Animals is more than a hymn to partygoing – it is a sharp study of the endurance of female friendship over romantic entanglements and life’s challenges. Against this unfolding drama, Manchester is portrayed as a city whose industrial outskirts are “sullen with redundancy” and shop closures.
The novel has been described as “Withnail with girls”, which is about right. It shares that film’s desperate hilarity and heebie-jeebies as well as its celebration of a friendship surviving against the odds. Alternately bleak and comic, Animals gives us the pain of the morning after the night before in all its unvarnished awfulness.