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2020 Reading Challenge: Mostly Dead Things

By Sarah Adams Permalink


I am going to be honest with you, I have been dreading reviewing this novel. It's been a week since I've finished and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Mostly Dead Things is the debut novel by Kristen Arnett. I chose it as my pick for LGBTQ+ author and this was one of the books I was most excited about reading this year. It seemed dark and strange and dysfunctional which are some of my favorite characteristics of novels. 

One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles. Her mother starts sneaking into the shop to make aggressively lewd art with the taxidermied animals. Her brother Milo withdraws, struggling to function. And Brynn, Milo’s wife—and the only person Jessa’s ever been in love with—walks out without a word. As Jessa seeks out less-than-legal ways of generating income, her mother’s art escalates—picture a figure of her dead husband and a stuffed buffalo in an uncomfortably sexual pose—and the Mortons reach a tipping point. For the first time, Jessa has no choice but to learn who these people truly are, and ultimately how she fits alongside them.

Mostly Dead Things was everything I expected it to be in terms of being dark and strange and dysfunctional. Imagine every "Florida Man" headline you have ever read and it kind of sums up this book. There is taxidermy, lewd sexual innuendos, a brother and sister both in love with and sleeping with the same woman, arson, and more. The novel delves deep into a dysfunctional family and analyzes every aspect of their dynamic. I enjoyed how deep the novel went in terms of character development. Every character in the book was flawed and hurting and lost in some way. I think that this is something that many readers will connect with. I think most of us have aspects of our past or our present or our personality that we run from and refuse to face. It is a novel ultimately about growth and forgiveness (mostly the forgiving of ones self) and in that sense it was darkly beautiful. 

There was so much about this novel that I enjoyed. It was unabashedly authentic and raw. But it was heavy. Painfully heavy. All of the characters are so sad. The downside of deep and thorough character development in a novel like Mostly Dead Things is that their sadness is palpable. Their sadness and despair and hopelessness becomes your sadness and despair and hopelessness. You become entrenched in the world of the Morton family and you almost have to mentally prepare yourself before you dive back in. On top of that, none of the characters are particularly likable. Towards the end of the novel there is significant growth for each character, Jessa in particular, but the journey to get there leaves you frustrated and at times annoyed with the actions of each member of the family. The combination of these two elements made the book difficult to get through at times. 

Ultimately, if I were to rate this book I would give it 3/5 stars. It's not something I would read again but I am glad I have read it. I'm hoping some of you will read it so I can see if you feel similarly. As always, if you give Mostly Dead Things a try send me a message or leave a comment of FB so we can discuss! 


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