Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir
Genre: Adult speculative fiction
Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
Release date: July 15 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: A strange and magical look at some very unusual animals, a narrator with an insatiable curiosity, no plot to speak of, but beautifully written.
Imagine, however, some unlucky person who would die without ever having encountered a flower, a person whose footfalls regularly met cement, whose raised eyes bumped off a dead layer of clouds, whose hopes consisted of daily crusts, and whose fears were so familiar they couldn’t be bothered to wear faces. Smelling the Parfumiers’ honey, that sad soul would know precisely what a flower was and what it meant—the heart of change that makes hope possible. Our bees had become like the invisible sisterhood of the Muses: their honey was pure poetry.
Invisible Beasts is described as “fiction,” but honestly it felt more like non-fiction to me, a scientific and clinical look at our natural—and unnatural world. Muir has crafted a character named Sophie who comes from a family of people who can see invisible animals, and what sounded like an awesome premise for a story was instead a mostly dry observation about different types of invisible animals, all with their own odd names, as seen by a woman with an eye for very detailed descriptions. This book is meant to be a journal where Sophie writes down details of all the invisible animals she discovers, but unfortunately, there is no plot to this book at all. For a girl who loves a good story—I mean, who among us doesn’t?—it was a bit disappointing.
However, Muir is a lovely writer and I enjoyed many of her made-up creatures. I believe most, if not all, of these stories appeared in literary journals prior to being bundled together into this book, and on their own, some of them are perfectly crafted short stories. Sophie is a playful and wry character who infuses subtle humor into her observations of the creatures that only she can see. Her sister Evie is a biologist who knows her secret, and together they have many lively discussions about the natural world. And even though the talent of being able to see invisible beasts is supposed to skip a generation, Evie’s son Leif has the ability as well (although he only makes one appearance in the book).
Of all the creatures in this story—including the Fine Print Rotifer, the Wild Rubber Jack, the Glass Kraken, and the Feral Parfumier Bees—my favorites were the Truth Bats. Truth Bats are able to detect whether a person is telling the truth or not by the timber of their voice. They are small fuzzy creatures that hang around in honest people’s hair, but a lie will send them flying away. Sophie “loses” her Truth Bats when she lies to her sister, and the only way she can get them back is to tell her the truth.
I also loved the Grand Tour Butterflies, whose wings show beautiful designs of vistas and cities. When the butterflies flock, they can join together and mimic their surroundings just by changing the pattern on their wings. I found myself wishing that some of these creatures were real, so I could see them for myself, although some of them were just too strange and horrifying, and I wanted nothing to do with those.
The story ends with an odd Epilogue that for me, strayed from the topic of animals and biology and dealt with the nature of love. It felt completely out-of-place, but then perhaps I just didn’t understand what the author was trying to say. By that time I had grown bored with Muir’s fascinating creatures and I was ready to read something else.
If you are the sort of reader who loves science, and animals in particular, I believe you will love this book. Don’t get me wrong—it was fascinating to read Sophie’s descriptions of “her” animals, especially when she delves into the stories of how they evolved. Invisible Beasts is a love letter to animals, and Muir’s poetic and fervent writing even made me see the beauty of spiders (at least as long as that chapter lasted!). The obligatory cautionary message about global warming and destroying our environment was subtle, and while I normal cringe at such “messages,” in this case I whole-heartedly agreed with the author. Quirky, odd, and at times beautiful, this is definitely a book that will make you think.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version.
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