Book Review: Small Poisons (Catherine Edmunds)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

At one point in Catherine Edmunds Small Poisons (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2009) a ladybird beetle exclaims, "What an addle-brained bunch of botrytis-ridden plants, and mini-beasts of unmitigated stupidity they all were." That sentiment could basically describe the entire cast of characters who inhabit the novel. As a work of fiction, Small Poisons almost defies classification. It might best be described as Lewis Carroll meets Monty Python, with a bit of Geek Love thrown in for good measure.

The events of the story take place in two worlds that bleed into each other. The first is the world of the garden which, like Alice in Wonderland, features insects, fauna and mythological creatures, many of whom can speak and have human emotions. The principle characters here are a mischievous blue-eyed demon and a beetle. The second world is that of human beings. It is represented by the four members of a family whose relationships to each other puts the "dys" in "dysfunctional." These include Joe, his wife Phoebe and their two sons, Steven and Ben. Like the garden inhabitants, they exist in a world without surnames.

The two worlds begin to merge when the demon, looking to cause some excitement and Joe, a patient in a psychiatric hospital, end up sharing the respective garden and house on the same property. The demon, who is immortal but not immune to pain, enters the garden to recuperate from a recent attempt to eat a poisonous plant. Riding on his shoulder is a beetle who acts as a sort of Sancho Panza to the demon's sense of self-importance. From the garden, the demon spies Ben, an eleven year old boy with problems of his own, sitting in his wheelchair on a patio bordering the garden. Ben's father is missing, his clinically obese older brother wants nothing to do with him, and his mother loathes the entire family. To ameliorate his loneliness Ben carries on mental conversations with a voice inside of his head that he has named Sally. The beetle spies Phoebe, whom she takes to be a goddess, while the demon decides to harass Ben via Sally. It is at this point that Joe, who has been recently visited by heavenly messengers, arrives home from the hospital where he was initially admitted after being stabbed by his wife. Just another day in the life, right? No amount of logic will lead a reader to how all of these events unfold — and this review is not about to disclose it either. The universe of Small Poisons is pre-psychological in its workings.

In attempting to create a mythical, pre-Christian world where life inhabits nearly every natural creation, Edmunds also makes some interesting stylistic choices. The point of view could perhaps be characterized as an author omniscience that occasionally interferes with itself. The first paragraph of chapter 18, for example, takes place in the mind of a cat. "The sun was at its meridian and the air heavy with midday pollen when Bobby the cat surprised himself by sneezing…He looked around angrily." The second paragraph switches to the mind of mites and then to Steven's thoughts:

The sun had brought out the red spider mites, who ran to and fro over the white marble bench on the patio, playing their own form of 'chicken'. They knew that should Steven appear their lives would be in danger. He had little interest in nature, but loved sitting on the bench in the sunshine and watching the mites race across to escape. This was Steven's favorite form of gardening. All he had to do was bring his finger down on one of them and pull it along the bench an inch or two. The mites were so tiny he couldn't feel them, but the action left a red streak on white marble.

Paragraph three opens, "A spider —no relation to the mites, but with a certain sympathy from thier plight — was repairing her web in the rose bushes." The narrative then switches back and forth between the perspective of a ladybird beetle and a caterpillar.Though most of the story is told through the thoughts or voices of one of the novel's myriad characters, occasionally the author herself will intrude into the book in such direct comments as: "Stephen was too stupid to take offence at these words." Even more frequently, one feels the author looming in the background speaking through the characters, as when eleven-year old Ben makes the following commentary on fashion, "She was dressed in a dark suit with a skirt that was too short and tight, showing he knobbly knees and chunky thighs, and a jacket that must have been designed to exaggerate her cleavage."

While all this might sound faintly post-modern, it has more the feel of a Bosch painting in which each creature speaks about his or her own circumstances. Despite its departure from the classic novel from, Small Poisons owes no debt to post-modernism. There are no purposeful disruptions of the kind intended to point out the artificiality of expected narrative form. Like the demon, it simply delights in following its own whim.

If the human family in Small Poisons make Al and Peggy Bundy look like Ozzie and Harriet, they in their turn are likely to evoke a more sympathetic response in the reader than the indigo-eyed demon. In her creation of the demon, Edmunds has is masterfully constructed one of the most singularly annoying characters in recent fiction. It's not that, like nature itself, the demon has a Nietzschean disregard for customary concepts of human morality. Its that his narcissism and cloying speech, not to mention bad versifying, grate on the reader like the proverbial nails on a chalkboard.

As a disability narrative, Small Poisons is an enigma. Certainly, the disability-related insults that its characters hurl at each other are stereotypic and demeaning. Steven is the butt of just about every fat epithet and pun imaginable even to the point of being ridiculed by the story's narrator. At the same time, however, Ben is spared the roles in which most fictional characters in wheelchairs are cast. He is not the heroic boy who overcomes obstacles to prove himself. Neither is he portrayed as the object of pity or charity:

Ben caught hold of the bird with his eyes and flung it at breakneck speed against the window. He felt the delicate bones shatter as the bird collided with the glass. There was the dull thud of the collision, and then, a fraction of a second later, a sound like gunshot as the seal broke and the double glazing imploded. Slight overkill there, Ben thought, sniggering.

No telethon Tiny Tim there. On the other hand, He is not Richard III or Captain Ahab. If Ben has a bit of a mean streak it is not because he is an angry crip or because Edmunds employs him as a symbol, but a result of his DNA. Of the four family members, he probably gets the congeniality award. While one might wish that Ben had been depicted in such a way as to bring about a more socially conscious view of disability, the truth is the Edmunds' novel has no agenda beyond entertainment. Ben's idiosyncrasity frees him from political use either positive or negative.

Fantasy is one of the sub-genre's of fiction in which very few writers with a disability have tried their hand. In fact, this writer can think of none. This leaves us with only those images in fairy tales where people with disabilities are by their very appearance representations of malice as with the evil dwarf or one-eyed giant, or, equally disturbing, pitiable as with the poor crippled boy. While none of Edmunds' human characters would pass for role models, neither are they symbols of evil or poster children for pity. To that extent, she has cranked representation of disability up a notch simply by having the chutzpah to create a work of fantasy in which human beings with disabilities are among the central characters. It also provides a challenge to emerging writers to take the next step.

For readers tired of the same reading fare, Catherine Edmunds' Small Poisons may be the antidote. With its fantastical characters, unpredictable plot, pun-laden language and slapstick that occasionally veers into Swiftian satire, it is unlike anything else one is likely to read this year. American readers will have the added treat of discovering British vocabulary and expression that will have them running for a Google search or the OED. Edmunds intends her novel as cover to cover entertainment. Enjoy it.