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Book Review: Small Poisons by Catherine Edmunds

There are fairies at the bottom of the garden…and that’s only the start. A pretty beetle named Cicindela has fallen in love with an Indigo eyed fairy demon. But the demon has bigger sights in store, like Phoebe the goddess, a human who has been through some kind of transformative process with a pumpkin. It might sound like a strange Grimm’s styled children's story, but Catherine Edmunds’ new novel Small Poisons is very much a novel for adults. It’s full of Celtic mythology, Freudian psychology, Jungian references, and a mingling of anthropomorphism and familial tension that somehow works perfectly.

It’s hard to imagine any other author pulling off a love story that includes stabbing and poisoning, along with some of the worst, most insane parenting ever. The human story mingles almost seamlessly with the vegetative one, where trees, insects, grass, and mythological beings like The Green Man or Pan connect to one another in an exuberance of joy and pain that extends well beyond the present tense. The invisible realm, from voices in the head, to imaginary messengers, to dream copulations, all have a role to play in this gorgeous book that straddles a fine line between perception, the fantastic, and the mundane workings of a daily grind. Edmunds takes the incongruities and, through a poetic use of imagery, close observation, and above all, humour, creates a tale that, despite it’s odd quirkiness, flows smoothly and keeps the reader deeply engaged. It’s a book that deftly combines pathos, intrigue, and a ribald Shakespearean humour:

The stranger smiled in tacit agreement and drifted into the high-backed chair next to the bed. Joe’s eyes were drawn to his braided hair, which crawled with luminous head lice. Rather than being repulsive, their shimmering light formed an attractive halo around the messenger’s head. Joe was about to comment on this when he was distracted by the sight of a nurse flying past, aerosol in hand.

One of the key protagonists in the book is young Ben, whose physical deterioration corresponds to the increasing nastiness of his invisible friend Sally, one of the story’s antagonists (of a sort). Ben is probably the most likable character in this novel, and it's possible to see the entire book as his point of view. Other important and likable characters include the motherly ladybird, and the beautiful iridescent Cicindela, both of which have a luminous intelligence that puts them above human limitations. And then there’s the demon. The demon’s evil activities are relatively mild compared to the ever-present human evil, and his role in the garden is partly underscored by his alliance with the Green Man or vegetative deity – a character with a positive, regenerative association. The human antagonist, Phoebe the Goddess (or witch), forms a neat anti-mother parallel with the ladybird, and with her potions, anger management issues, rationing of fun, and underlying discomfort, she forms a good deal of both the humour and the horror in this book as she moves between her sharp knife collection, and ennui.

Despite the Celtic influence, there is something decidedly modern in this dysfunctional family, from brother Steven’s gross obesity and internal monologue, to father Joe’s environmental obsessions, and even in the crazy mismatched longings and hallucinations of both Joe and Phoebe. Meanwhile, down in the garden, the cat is killing off a family of sparrows, and the return of repressed memories cause a serious case of shape shifting. There are so many subtle parallels, transitions, symbols, and correspondences in this wonderful, rich novel. Edmunds' lighthearted romp creates a powerful impression of deep meaning, but the work is so funny and, at times, absurd, that you can’t help enjoying yourself.

About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.