The Memory of Animals
Tin House (2023)
288 pp. $27.95 (hardcover)
“The way I came to miss the end of the world,” explains Bill Masen, the protagonist of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids, “was sheer accident.” On the night a meteor shower blinds most of the world’s population, Masen is recovering from an eye injury. Masen’s eyes are protected by bandages; when he removes these the following morning, he proves one of the only people left able to see on an Earth overrun by walking, carnivorous plants known as Triffids. In the widely popular 2002 film 28 Days Later, a bike courier named Jim emerges from a coma to find society ravaged by the accidental release of an acutely contagious, “aggression-inducing” virus called “Rage.” AMC’s critically acclaimed television series The Walking Dead (originally aired 2010-2022) opens similarly: Rick Grimes, a police officer who falls into a coma after a shooting on the job, wakes to blood-streaked ward walls and fetid corpses in the hospital’s hallways. Grimes soon learns that the world has devolved into a virus-driven zombie apocalypse and, by virtue of his hospitalization, he has avoided infection.
For those familiar, it is hard not to think of Bill, Jim, and Rick at the outset of award-winning author Claire Fuller’s latest novel, The Memory of Animals. The book takes place in a modern England beset by a pandemic. “Dropsy,” a highly contagious and mutable virus bearing marked similarity to Covid-19, is quickly spreading past the point of no return. Neffy, the uncanny dystopian narrative’s twenty-six-year-old protagonist, has volunteered to participate in a rush vaccine trial. Over text, her mother and boyfriend, Justin, beg her to bow out. But Neffy—for reasons which emerge as the novel progresses—agrees to get the jab. Forty-eight hours later, she is intentionally infected with Dropsy, after which she expects to spend three weeks isolating under observation in a London hospital unit.
Immediately, intensely sick, Neffy loses consciousness for seven days. She wakes to a trial ward abandoned by medical professionals and volunteers. The internet and landline are out, cell service nonexistent; the latest, brain-swelling variant of the virus has dismantled any previously recognizable human civilization. As the four remaining volunteers Leon, Rachel, Piper, and Yahiko inform her, BioPharm’s vaccine trial was stopped shortly after Neffy’s inoculation. The two others who progressed to the infection stage died, rendering Neffy the only known Dropsy-immune individual on Earth.
The Day of the Triffids and The Walking Dead belong to a broader strain of post-apocalyptic and outbreak narratives, ranging from Emily St. John Mandel’s contemplative, Shakespearean novel Station Eleven to HBO’s recent hit TV show based on a video game, The Last of Us. These stories run the gamut of viral and cataclysmic possibilities. Still, the genre converges on common themes: solitude, survival, rapidly blurring boundaries between civilization and chaos. Typically, characters are driven out of safety and into wrecked, threat-studded terrain; there is always someone to save, some antidote to obtain.
Given its premise, one might reasonably expect that Fuller’s latest will follow a similar formula. Not quite. Beyond perfunctory allusions to “riots in the supermarkets” and “bodies in the streets,” readers find little violence or squalor here. The bulk of this brooding novel takes place within the withdrawn, relatively comfortable confines of the Vaccine BioPharm ward. There are minor stressors—the air conditioning is broken, Rachel keeps crying, the food supply is dwindling—but these feel peripheral. Really, the story takes in Neffy’s guilt-wracked, endlessly ruminative mind. As we soon learn, Leon worked as a developer for a device called a “Revisitor” prior to volunteering for the trial. The gadget resembles a virtual reality simulator, allowing users to access and relive personal memories with eidetic, sensual clarity. A compelling, potentially marketable concept—only, the device rarely worked. Yet, just as Neffy alone appears to have survived Dropsy, so too does she prove singularly capable of operating the Revisitor. She begins visiting Leon’s room daily, submerging herself in a reservoir of sometimes joyful, often fraught memories from her childhood and early adulthood. Fuller thereby offers a vital counterweight to her hospital setting’s sparse sterility: Revisited life is lush with the colors, textures, and smells of a pre-pandemic world, to say nothing of the company of other people.
Chief among Neffy’s Revisited memories are those of her father, Baba. Following her parents’ separation as a child, Neffy spent vacations at Baba’s home on the island of Paxos, Greece. We observe these visits, replete with opera songs, tiger cubs, and a Greek delicacy called bougatsa; we also watch as Baba’s health declines due to rapidly progressing kidney disease and Neffy offers—too late—to replace his failing organs with one of her own.
It is on Paxos as well that we uncover the origins of Neffy’s lifelong love for octopuses—perhaps the most obvious “animal” alluded to by the book’s title. There, as a seven-year-old enthralled by tide pools, Neffy lowered her face into the water and
looked down into another world. Mountains and valleys, chasms and rockfalls, swaying fields of grass. The light was sallow, the colour of Mum’s green tea, and the sound was of tiny scrapings, bubbles and my own breath [ . . . ] I watched and I watched until something orange with suckers, smaller than my little finger, felt its way forward. I held my breath and then abruptly I was yanked backwards up into the land of humans and noise and light and sound.
“I thought you’d forgotten to breathe!” Mum said, laughing.
This fascination compels Neffy to pursue a career in marine biology. It also forms the basis for her relationship with Hydna, a curled octopus housed by the London aquarium where Neffy worked before the outbreak. Anxious and lonely, Neffy writes Hydna letters from her room in the hospital. These epistles—addressed, fondly, “To H”—backend each of the novel’s chapters, providing everything from assorted octopus trivia (“An octopus is believed to be the only invertebrate aware of being in captivity.”) to direct exposition (“In the disciplinary meeting I was told that I had to pay back what I owed to the aquarium for the loss of an octopus.”) and insights about the protagonist’s isolated, febrile state of mind (“I try to put myself inside the mind of an octopus. A brain shaped like a donut with the intestines travelling through the central hole, a being that understands the world through arms and suckers, as much as head. How different would I be from who I am now? And what would I want?”).
Both the Hydna letters and the Revisitor offer convenient mechanisms for filling in Neffy’s history, fleshing out a protagonist about whom we might otherwise struggle to care. They also subvert the more violent or action-based conventions of many post-apocalyptic outbreak narratives; rather than fight infected or otherwise violent persons in the streets, our protagonist wages quieter, internal wars. External or “Outside” ruin is assumed more often than demonstrated. In this way, Fuller’s novel draws perhaps less on the tradition of Triffids or The Last of Us and more on that of yet another pandemic parable: Edgar Allen Poe’s 1842 short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” Suggestive parallels emerge between Neffy and her companions’ hospital hideout and Poe’s description of a Prince and his nobles taking refuge in an abbey during a lethal plague, holding a surreally sombre party where “stalked a multitude of dreams” and “beat feverishly the heart of life.” Neffy’s situation also cuts harrowingly close to many experiences of early Covid isolation.
Occasionally, Fuller’s premise feels crowded, the dual science fiction elements of the virus and the Revisitor jockeying for page space. Leon’s futuristic gadget seems conceptually unnecessary. Surely there are other, more organic narrative methods of urging Neffy back into her memories—glancing through photos on her omnipresent phone, say, or simply daydreaming during the days she spends in the hospital doing, effectively, nothing.
For all the time and effort it takes to develop Neffy’s background by way of Revisited installments, the various substrates of the protagonist’s psyche and story turn out to be somewhat disappointingly uniform in impulse. The novel’s thrust might be summed thus: Neffy is out to save someone. Anyone. Plagued by an unspecific guilt, she tries and fails to save her father by way of kidney transplant. She wants to save Hydna, too, by setting her free but succeeds only in losing her job and granting the domesticated animal a few months in the wild. She volunteers for the well-compensated vaccine trial in an ostensible attempt to save herself from prodigious debt to the aquarium—although this, too, reads like a stab at the vaguely altruistic ethic of which she is forever falling short. Following the dissolution of the trial and descent into global dystopia, she grapples with broader questions of debt and salvation.
Perhaps Neffy’s one-track drive to Do Good would grate less were it not so explicitly, repeatedly stated. Of releasing Hydna, Neffy writes “All that was in my mind was that I wanted to save someone, something, finally. I scooped up some of your water and you climbed in the box.” Reflecting on her position in the hospital, she describes a “moment then when I step out of myself and these people and see us for what we are [ . . . ] These people saved me; now I need to save in turn.”
Thankfully, such heavy-handedness is relatively out of place in Fuller’s otherwise brisk, lucid prose. The novel’s dialogue is witty and accessible; its principal characterizations are precisely sustained. Fuller has a keen eye for setting. Descriptions of Neffy’s brief forays Outside especially evoke the achingly dense clusters of sensation which follow long periods of indoor isolation:
No hum of the air conditioner, just the sound of leaves moving, a bird, the tick of something metallic cooling as the shadows of a late summer evening steal across it. And a smell. I inhale a subtle scent, something floral, sweet—grass and earth, perhaps—and then it’s gone. I could step out [ . . . ] I could step out and find some grass to dig my toes into, lie under a London plane tree and gaze into its leaves and beyond to an empty sky. But as I glance up, the sun catches on one of the windows in the flats above the row of shops opposite, glares at me and dazzles. And then the air seems full of an unseen menace, and the silence is malevolent as though someone is behind those net curtains, watching.
Indeed, The Memory of Animals is at its most powerful when it functions like a kind of Covid Revisitor for readers, evoking subtler memories of uncertainty, freedom, and enclosure—of trying, when all else is stripped away, to figure out what we owe one another.
ELLIE EBERLEE is a recent Master’s graduate in English literature from the University of Oxford who is currently working for Oxford University Press from her hometown of Toronto. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, the Literary Review (UK), the Literary Review of Canada, and the Chicago Review of Books, among other venues.