Book Review: Mostly Dead Things

A taxidermist’s family grieves and grows in Kristen Arnett’s debut

In any other climate, it might feel too late in the year to immerse yourself in Mostly Dead Things. So much of the texture of Kristen Arnett’s debut novel has to do with the singular pleasures and discomforts of sweltering summer living: battling mosquitoes, picking at the label on a clammy beer bottle, feeling your shorts ride high in the humidity.

Lucky for us then that this October has had plenty of days over 90 degrees and we can spend more time with the Morton family of Florida. Adult daughter Jessa has inherited her father’s taxidermy business after his suicide, and she works overtime to keep the rest of the family afloat as they grieve, some more conventionally with others. Struggling under the weight of her father’s expectations that the family seem normal, unable to move on from her first love (her brother’s recently disappeared wife, Brynn, with whom Jessa had a protracted affair), and self-isolating to a fault, Jessa doesn’t make for an easy-breezy narrator. We sit shoulder-to-shoulder with her anxieties, her coping mechanisms (beer, avoidance), her wry humor, her ability to turn anything into a taxidermy metaphor, and Arnett’s deftness somehow keeps that level of intimacy from becoming claustrophobic.

The novel pings back and forth between Jessa’s adolescence and the here-and-now, and Arnett takes her time unspooling the complications of Jessa’s relationships with her father and Brynn. In less deft hands, this might feel like an author being withholding or manufacturing a mystery, but Arnett makes it about the seductive instinct to mythologize our relationships with the people we love and lose, the complexities we sacrifice by doing so, and how much work it takes to see the whole picture. While Jessa retreads those memories, in the present day, the people live and in front of her – her mother, who is expressing a previously quashed interest in visual art by making surreal, sexual dioramas with taxidermied animals; her brother, who’s been adrift since his wife ran off; and her niece and nephew, who have become reminders of Brynn’s abandonment – refuse to stay in stasis, however much Jessa would like them to stay unobtrusive and manageable.

Arnett’s act of grace is that every character is allowed to be a complicated, messy, aching person. They inspire fondness and frustration by turns. They change even as they hunger for the past. Mostly Dead Things is about the awful, beautiful business of being human, but you could never accuse it of being a generalist. It gets there by telling the story of these specific people, with depth and precision and color (the smells described in this book alone!), and letting you recognize your own longings in them. Well, you might also recognize the mosquitoes.

Mostly Dead Things

by Kristen Arnett
Tin House Books, 354 pp., $24.95

Kristin Arnett will appear with authors Sarah Rose Etter (The Book of X) and Kevin Huizenga (The River at Night) in the Texas Book Festival session "All By Myself: Loneliness in Fiction" on Sat., Oct. 26, 1pm, in Capitol Ext. Rm. E2.016. For more information, visit

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Texas Book Festival, Texas Book Festival 2019, literary fiction, Kristen Arnett

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