Review of small press and independent books.
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Joe is a long-stay patient in a psychiatric ward – unvisited, it appears, by family or friends. 'Small Poisons' is primarily, for me, the story of his illness and recovery, though it is many other things too, and this is as far from a conventional novel as a meadow of wild flowers is from a formal garden.
After a brief introduction to Joe’s hospital ward, where he is reading Kafka in the early hours, we are led into his world – his home, his garden, his family. The veil dividing reality from dream and delusion is semi-transparent and flimsy, constantly shifted by the breeze. We do not know whether Joe’s family are really as he sees them (for his sake and theirs, we may hope not). Some of Joe’s visions are beyond belief – talking beetles, sentient sausages and philosophising caterpillars (there is plenty of humour here, too).
Yet as we follow Catherine Edmunds down her garden path, the impossibilities soon cease to matter and we become entranced, like children listening to a fairy tale. (On first reading Small Poisons I was reminded of long-ago sensations as I read, at the age of seven, Lewis Carroll’s 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Through the Looking Glass' – that never-to-be forgotten combination of shock, suspense, fright, intrigue and finally mild addiction to this illogical but strangely familiar world.)
We meet Cicindela the beetle and her alarming friend, the fairy demon, who seduces and exploits her with his charm. Is he altogether evil? We are never sure. We experience the garden from the point of view of its inhabitants – plants, insects, spiders, the family cat… and we are gently reminded that there are vast ‘alternative’ realities, close to home, from which as humans we are almost wholly excluded. It’s a humbling message, reminding us in a refreshingly subtle and understated way of our responsibility to the natural world. At the same time, we laugh at green-minded Joe insisting that his son dig sandcastles with a useless wooden spade (plastic is bad) and filling his tank with cooking oil that gives off fumes like frying chips.
The human characters are, to put it mildly, disturbing. I’m reminded of one of my favourite authors, Hilary Mantel, as Edmunds provides an unflinching examination of the nastier bits of the human psyche (and also of Mantel’s treacly inseparable mixtures of real and imagined worlds). Joe’s wife Phoebe and the elder son Steven are particularly unpleasant (seen from Joe’s present mental state, at least). I will let you discover them for yourself. Ben, the younger boy, is a more sympathetic character and would evoke enormous compassion if this story were read ‘straight’. It’s difficult, however, not to see these folk as characters in a fairy tale – the wicked mother, the ‘ugly brother’, the neglected younger child who is fed and clothed but otherwise virtually ignored.
No-one appears at all concerned that Ben’s legs no longer work and that he has become confined to a wheelchair. His imaginary companion, Sally, is far from a typical, comforting childhood friend. She speaks in Ben’s (very precocious) voice, yet she is ‘other’ – a threat, capable of inspiring jealousy and fear. Ben misses his father but does not dare to ask where Joe went, after a night of violence and terror that Ben remembers all too well.
The fragile veil between real and imagined, truth and delusion, perception and hallucination, brings to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s strange dream-like tale 'The Unconsoled' – another favourite of mine. I have already mentioned Hilary Mantel, and see 'Small Poisons' as continuing her tradition, especially in 'Fludd' and 'Beyond Black', of exploring the part of our minds that lurks below the surface, often coming into view only at times of distress, illness and, of course, in dreams. In a novel that also pushes against our tendency to see the human worldview as central, this is particularly powerful – we are led to question the whole nature of reality, interpretation and truth. And all in a superficially simple fairy tale – which is exactly how it should be.
Finally, of course, there are delightful connections here to 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream', with its mingling of human and fairy worlds, the ‘supernatural’ influences unsuspected by the ‘mortals’ – a whole additional reality out there of which they understand nothing. And any story whose heroine is a beetle must acknowledge Kafka, as indeed Joe does in the opening chapter.
Settle down with 'Small Poisons' and let Catherine Edmunds take you into a juicy, earthy and unforgettable world of beetles, fairy demons, ladybirds and dysfunctional families. Discover there that the mirror dividing this world from our own is only a minimally distorting one.
Highly recommended… captivating, funny, and completely, wonderfully new.
Rosalie Warren, 4/11/09
Last edited by Rosalie Warren (2009-11-04 23:07:50)
Excellent review, thanks Rosalie. I love this book and am conscious that although it's a great read, it's quite a hard one to describe (I don't think there's anyone quite like Cathy). I'm fascinated to see someone else's take on it.
I'm fascinated too! When people ask me what it's about, I'm also often stuck, even though I wrote it. This review has given me some fabulous ideas on what to say.
.... or from the reader's mind. Some of the things people have told me my stories are about have sent me off planning stories I never would otherwise have thought of .... and one or two suggested stories I wouldn't even attempt to write!
Review by John Irvine
Let me state right away that fantasy is not my preferred genre. Having attempted such fantasy gurus in the past as Anne McCaffrey (oh, you have to read this) without any success what-so-ever, I was not sure that I was the right person to be reviewing this novel, Small Poisons, by Cathy Edmunds. I mentioned my aversion to Cathy who immediately put me right: "This is NOT fantasy, John, there are no wizards or dragons. It is Magical Realism." So, having been suitably educated, I plunged into the peace and splendour of an average suburban garden.
I should have known better, of course, having read a lot of Cathy’s mind-bending, off-the-wall poetry. This ‘average’ garden is anything but average. Think on this: first you toss talking beetles, worms and flowers and a rhymester flower fairy/demon into a pot. OK? Then you add a dash of loony dad, a pinch of self-proclaimed goddess mum (into whose knickers the demon fairy bloke is dead keen to get) with her green beetle acolyte, a grossly fat obsequious son who gets booted about (literally) by his mum all the time, and his crippled younger brother (who has a girl called Sally in his head): well, with those ingredients, you can’t help but get a rich and spicy feed. Oh and there’s also Bobby the cat who spends the entire book murdering a family of sparrows.
The book is certainly that. Rich and spicy. Pungent.
Once immersed in the daily deliberations and mental manipulations of the above menagerie, I had difficulty putting the book down. The plot is not obviously complicated, and can be read seriously as a metaphor for our own daily grind, but it is very, very devious indeed. There is love, tragedy, lust, hope, despair, greed, manipulation, stupidity, remorse, arrogance, death, gluttony, avarice, jealousy, hate, forgiveness and quite a bit of violence in this belly-busting casserole. Have I left anything out?
Everyone in the story wants a piece of the action, and loyalties fluctuate. This one wants that one but can’t have, because that one already is trying for the other one who isn’t interested. Everyone cares about what’s happening to the others except that no-one cares a rotten fig about the cripple. Nice touch that, I thought.
The whole thing is an absolutely wonderful cross-species romp, with some of the most bizarre yet believable characters in any book I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ve never read anything quite like it, ever, and this is because Cathy Edmunds doesn’t take herself seriously (well, not all the time). She’s too smart for that. This intricately-woven story is saturated with her peculiar brand of decidedly bent humour: very dry and whimsical. She tells a tale with humour that has sober undertones, a story to be read on at least two levels. And it’s challenging. That’s what won me over to her book. The humour, yes, and the challenge to let my mind rampage. There was hardly a moment when I wasn’t smiling or grinning or wincing, urging on this beetle or that fruitcake. It is difficult in the extreme, I can tell you, to be wicked, bent, serious, charming, clever and witty all at the same time. Cathy succeeds in spades. The fact that the woman is artistic, erudite and intelligent helps a lot, I guess.
It is an indication of the author’s thought processes that among this collection of incredible lunatics the only one sane and sensible character she offers us is a ladybird who dispenses non-stop wisdom and pragmatic advice to her friend the shiny green beetle. Ladybird is the thread binding all the other loonies together, albeit tenuously.
After feeding the reader a diet of amazing descriptive images throughout the book, Cathy wraps the whole shebang up with a terrific ending, one I didn’t see coming. I couldn’t imagine along the willowy winding way how she would be able to draw all the many raggedy strings together and leave the reader wanting more. There are so many complex characters and manoeuvres and machinations to bring to a climax, so many sub-plots and sub-texts to coagulate. I was darned sorry when the book came to an end, and that doesn’t happen very often for me.
What I really liked so much about the ending was how Cathy....
Hah! You go buy the book and find out for yourself. I thoroughly recommend this novel to anyone who is prepared to suspend conventional thinking for a couple of days, who enjoys the bizarre laced with whimsy, and who revels in amusing madness and mirthful mayhem. And let’s not forget that this talented lady was the cover artist also.
I promise you, you will never look at your garden the same way again...
This book gets my 2009 Mega-Supreme Spotted Dick Pudding with Steaming Compost Award with Bar and five Beetles.
PS: Make no mistake. In spite of my somewhat flippant review, this is a cleverly and skilfully written body of work, filled with rich, iridescent language and chock-a-block with carefully-drawn characters. The sub-plot(s) is rather serious, although one can still enjoy the book without delving between the lines and interpreting the metaphors. The entire storyline has been well thought out and developed ruthlessly to its satisfying conclusion. Of course, there has to be a sequel, right, Ms Edmunds? Cathy?
Last edited by Cooldragon (2009-11-10 17:38:52)
Small Poisons, written by Catherine Edmunds, is an organically grown story sprayed with esoteric dementia.
The y chromosomes grasping tenaciously at misinterpreted reality – the Dad’s donation, and the x chromosomes gurgling with a psychopathic tendency to play at wielding butcher’s knives, being Mom’s contribution – the offspring stand little chance of being normal. Beyond his years, the younger son dabbles in different personalities while the elder brother struggles socially with stupidity and a bulimia for cyber-porn; he is somewhat behind in years. All is less than hunky-dory when matters take a turn with the visitation of a Garden Demon. A handsome fellow with exotic terrorist eyes, under whose influence the familial flagons of individual mental inadequacies burst, splashing from one to the other. The froth turns contagious; a singular non-specific meld of composting madness now takes a hold, spreading to all members of our unhappy little family. To make matters worse, if possible, the Demon who is having an affair [yes an affair] with a beetle [yes a beetle] is a poet. A bad one.
The book is dedicated to Charles Ross. Charles Ross is a variety of apple tree. Surprisingly weird? Weird is not the word, though soon all becomes crystal unclear as the story zig-zags between house and garden. Inside and outside juxtaposed; flora and fauna capable of intelligent thought and herbaceous souls with a collective conscience and a philosophical bent, contrasting with the humans tamped in a mire of pretentious earthiness. Not surprising is the full suspension of disbelief as Edmunds skilfully brings intelligent interaction between all life forms. Step aside Mr Kipling and his pack of wolves – over here even the blades of grass have an opinion that counts.
With a plethora of bugs and weeds and bushes and birds, all individual characters in the garden masterly developed, a theme-song most fitting for the tale could be: English Country Garden.
How many kinds of sweet flowers grow
How many insects come here and go
How many songbirds fly to and fro
Whistle the tune softly to imbue confidence as you venture out – there may well be a Garden Demon in your apple tree.
How all is resolved is of lesser importance, as to travel hopefully through Small Poisons is better than to arrive. It’s worth reading to find out, though. Definitely.
Last edited by daniel abelman (2010-03-08 09:58:14)
Thanks from me too - I enjoyed the reminder of a book full of good things
Oooh I got all excited then cos I clicked on that link and thought 'Man myth and magic in lightest Africa' was a sequel to Allakazzam. Let's do more author-harassing - Daniel - wanna sequel, NOW!
its a pleasure, cath... and hi-hello, kay
i dunno if its allowed to post such things on this forum -- but people should know where they can purchase a copy of SMALL POISONS.... its for everybodies good
"Small Poisons" is an individualistic and quirky story of what goes on - perhaps - below the surface: of minds, families and gardens.
It's difficult to describe this fascinating story, but if you can imagine a spiked cocktail of "Alice through the Looking Glass", "The Master and Margarita". "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and a Richard Dadd painting come to life, that gets close.
Cleverly-drawn characters, a pointy wit and a subversive imagination make this story both accessible and compelling.
"Small Poisons" may not be everyone's poison, but in that lies its charm.