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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Book review: Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)

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AUTHOR INFO: Author. Poet. Novelist. Occasional librettist. Sporadic puppeteer. Caroline Hardaker lives in the north east of England and writes quite a lot of things. She earned her BA (English Literature) and MA (Cultural and Heritage Studies) from Newcastle University, and her main problem is limiting herself to one idea at once, or maybe two ideas, or three…

Publisher: Angry Robot (April 13, 2021) Page count: 400 Formats: paperback, eBook, and audio.

The strength and beauty of Caroline Hardaker’s impressive debut novel rests in how much she leaves unsaid, the details she merely hints at through all its pages up until the devastating climax. However, such subtlety also makes it a bit of challenge to review the novel with the justice it deserves.

Continuing from the official synopsis above, Composite Creatures has a dystopic setting: a world ravaged by climate change where biological richness and diversity have plummeted, and human health has unsurprisingly gone with. Human life expectancies are short, except for those with the privilege of relying on companies like Easton Grove to prolong the inevitable.

At the center of this story sit Norah and Arthur (Art), two young professionals on a first date, trying to eke out a healthy and lasting existence within this dimmed world. The only information for readers on events past and present come from the first-person perspective of Norah, an office worker with an undemanding job, whose single-minded goal stands as staying in the good graces of Easton Grove. Key to that is making a relationship with writer Art work, and for them to care for their ‘bundle of joy’ from Easton Grove together, with unified devotion.

From the opening chapters of the novel, Hardaker introduces readers to Norah (and through her eyes Art) as well as the general depleted state of the natural Earth. But she also immediately hints at some details, while leaving other details only partially explained. For instance, past relationships that Norah has had are now gone, for uncertain reasons. And this ‘bundle of joy’ that the couple await sounds a lot like a baby, but seems to be more of a pet, like a cat. But not a cat. What is it? We don’t exactly know yet. But Norah and Arthur decide it’s a ‘her’, name her Nut, and they begin to love her as slowly love and trust begins to build in their own relationship.

And so here we also see the primary characteristic of Hardaker’s novel. Things seem mundanely familiar, but… just… not right. Something is off, weird. It puts the reader on edge, confused amid the other hinted-at details and omissions of explanation from Norah. And that discomfort increasingly builds, as Norah’s desire for everything to be ‘all right’ seems to start unraveling, their status in Easton Grove’s program jeopardized.

Aside from the discussion of post-climate-change damages, the start to Composite Creatures almost reads like a set up for a contemporary romance novel. Young woman meeting young guy after being set up for a first date. They enjoy a nice meal, and circumstances provide a suitably unique and funny anecdote that could forever be shared (if all continues well) in sweet recollection stories of ‘how they first met.’

And yet, something feels really off. There are elements that aren’t familiar to first dates, like the sharing of CV like dossiers of professional and health information. And the sense that these two are agreeing on a partnership not actually founded on any kind of romantic attraction at all. Something more of a… business arrangement? Further scenes and details reinforce this, while also revealing that other elements that seem familiar at first sight, are slightly twisted in this near-future world. Though Nut seems like a pet (almost like a child) whose health and safety are of utmost importance, Norah and Art have transgressed by naming her, by not simply considering their ‘bundle of joy’ an ‘it’. They are meant to care for it, but certainly not love it.

These – and other revelations – slowly build with an atmosphere of creeping disquiet to reveal just what situation Norah and Art are in, how it relates to Norah’s past and current friends, how Easton Grove fits into it all, and how the decimation of life on Earth by human activity has brought civilization to this state.

That brutal reveal doesn’t come until the last chapter of the novel, so a great deal of patience is required for readers of Composite Creatures. Yet, careful readers (and probably familiarity with biology) will likely lead readers to figure things out well before the ultimate reveals, which then end up serving more as verification of assumptions/interpretations. In other words, though things aren’t fully revealed until novel’s end, it’s not really a ‘mystery’ or ‘thriller’. Those paying close attention and analyzing should be figuring things out along the way; the ‘surprise’ of the end should just be how things end up for Norah and Art.

What I found most fascinating in Composite Creatures was not the dystopia, (or, surprisingly, the biology) but that central relationship of Art and Norah. Despite entering into coupleship for very different reasons, they forge a union around of love: a marriage, united in flesh, as the tradition goes, to perfectly parallel the speculative elements of the novel.

The themes by novel’s end clearly explore issues of corporate versus individual rights, ownership of biological self, the nature of healthy versus exploitative partnerships – and likely more as one thinks fuller and deeper. Composite Creatures could be a novel breezed through without much thought or emotional engagement, or with impatience. But that would likely be one heck of a boring read, willfully or obliviously missing all the nuance and carefully constructed dread that make reading this a joy and fuel the speculation and thoughts that abide with the reader afterward.

Composite Creatures is a creeping terror of unease, a slow burn of little deceptions building to bitter tragedy, a dystopia of corporate power masquerading as a prosaic story of two people uniting as one in courtship and marriage. Though echoing familiar themes of post-apocalyptic genre fiction and feminism, Caroline Hardaker builds her debut novel with rich atmosphere and a purely unique symbolic take on character and the concepts of life. Readers demanding heavy action or instant answers would be advised to give this a pass, but lovers of character, nuance, and atmospheres of just-off-kilter disquiet should be enraptured and satisfied.



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