There’s a pretty high degree of chutzpah involved in taking a Jane Austen quote for your novel’s title but Emily Arsenault’s WHAT STRANGE CREATURES is equal to the challenge. The book is often deliciously funny and its protagonist, struggling academic and potential crazy cat lady Theresa Battle, could well be a 21st century descendant of Austen’s favourite heroines.
The book focuses on the relationship between Theresa and her older brother Jeff who we learn in the opening pages is accused of having murdered his girlfriend. In what might be evidence that names matter the Battles have low expectations for their lives
Sometimes, when my father would scratch off a losing lottery ticket or arrive at the movie theatre after all the seats had sold out, he would say cheerfully, “Oh well. We’re Battles. We’re used to disappointment.” Or worse: “We’re Battles. What chance did we have?”
Jeff, the designated family genius who nevertheless couldn’t hang on to his job as a bus driver, seems almost resigned to his fate. Theresa though is not prepared to settle for this and goes to bat for her brother by attempting to uncover who else might have murdered Kim.
The character of Theresa is fabulous. Not fabulous as in she has it all together and can kick ass and bake cupcakes too. But fabulous in the way she is totally believable. She has one failed marriage behind her, a half-finished PhD thesis about a really obscure subject, a growing menagerie of pets and a dull job that was meant to be a fill-in while she finished her dissertation. She also has a wicked sense of humour and is just as willing to turn her humorous observations on herself as on those around her. Without the funny she’d have just been rude and/or morose but with it she is endlessly readable.
The story itself was a little patchier in execution. It’s not bad but it’s not brilliant. The number of references to Theresa’s obscure thesis subject was a little high for me.The first one or two passages in which the 14th Century religious eccentric featured were vaguely interesting but after a while I was just glad I would never have to read the completed thesis. The larger story concerning Kim’s death and Theresa’s ‘investigation’ was a bit rambly too. There’s meant to be a sort of political intrigue in that Kim had become obsessed with some local politician and how she was going to show him up via a viral video. But I never really bought this. Looking back I’m going to blame the book blurb partly for this (I know, I know I don’t read book blurbs anymore. Except that I did just this once. I. Have. Learned. My. Lesson.) because it made this angle seem a lot more substantial than it ever actually was. If I hadn’t been expecting it perhaps I would have felt differently about the fact it was never really a strong theme. Still I liked the way Theresa dove into things, even the way she put herself in danger seemed realistic (if somewhat daft on occasion) and the resolution was a good one.
Given that I read the book for yet another stop on my virtual tour of the US via its crime fiction I’d have liked to gain more of a sense of this book’s location. It took me until three quarters of the way through to confirm it is actually set in Massachusetts (the state I had assigned it to on my reading list) as there is really nothing that sets it anywhere other than “small-ish University town USA”. But this is more a book of inner places than external ones and Theresa’s inner life and her relationship with Jeff is well worth the price of admission. Sibling relationships – especially between a brother and sister – are something of a rarity in fiction and this one is thoughtfully and credibly drawn. So Arsenault’s borrowing from Austen (the full quote is ‘what strange creatures brothers are‘ from MANSFIELD PARK) is indeed well-earned.
Perhaps not one for the die-hard crime fiction fans but if you enjoy a character-driven novel with self-deprecating humour and a hint of mystery I can definitely recommend WHAT STRANGE CREATURES.
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This is the 15th book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.
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Publisher William Morrow 
Length 366 pages
Book Series standalone