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Small Poisons Reviews
December 2012Click here for Review
by Michael Northen of Wordgathering
or read on...
November 2010 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
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,
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?
March 2010 Review by Daniel Abelman
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,
daniel abelman 2010-03-08
Review by Rosalie
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.
Small Poisons by Catherine
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