This week, I’m reviewing a book that I’ve been looking forward to since I first saw that enigmatic cover; it’s Composite Creatures, the debut novel from poet Caroline Hardaker. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Angry Robot.
This review contains an affiliate link to Waterstones, which will earn me a commission if used.
In the not-too-distant future, the prognosis is grim for humanity. Centuries of human activity have contributed to not only the death of innumerable species of plants and animals, but have also begun to exact a heavier toll on our own bodies. With toxicity levels increasing constantly, we are being poisoned by the planet we have so mistreated with every breath we take. In an effort to extend their lifespans and stave off “the greying,” Norah and her new partner Art turn to the mysterious Easton Grove; the company’s novel answer – to supply them with a furry bundle of joy to care for – the beginning of potentially long and healthy lives for both of them. As long as they can keep it safe.
The plausibility of much of the world of Composite Creatures is certainly chilling. Hardaker paints a picture of a world which from a distance might look relatively healthy, but up close is frequently an elaborate sham. Grass which squeaks when you walk on it, patchwork animals burrowing through dying hedgerows, cardboard pinecones… it’s all the work of an industrious humanity that’s trying to buy itself time and deny the realities of the situation with typical ingenuity and fakery. Off in the distant fields, veiled scatterers treating the land with a cocktail of chemicals serve as a constant reminder of the illusory control we have over our environment, their desperate and life-shortening work a necessary evil. It’s a world we recognise, but one that’s been twisted and warped artfully.
It’s not just the world itself though – everything about Composite Creatures is just so perfectly off-kilter, seemingly mundane facades obscuring the frequently disturbing reality. The relationship between Norah and Art, for example, would seem fairly normal from the outside, but actually it’s anything but. They met each other through Easton Grove, who appear to have a vested interest in getting the two of them together, as well as being intensely interested in how things are going for them personally. The exact nature of the programme which they have signed up for is unclear for much of the novel, its purpose revealed through a gradual drip feed of hints and clues which, when viewed with hindsight, is masterfully well done. Crucially, this deliberately crafted air of mystery never frustrates; its careful cultivation in fact makes the reader feel as if they’re in on the secret despite not actually knowing what it is.
As the plot gradually unwinds, we’re also treated to fleeting glimpses of Norah’s past life, showing the decisions that led her to her current situation with Art, as well as developing her character further. It all feels very intense in its focus, as she is increasingly confronted with her past actions by the vague allusions of her friends, as well as by her own persistent and frequently painful memories. With the mysterious creature to care for, Norah becomes more withdrawn from the rest of the world too, with the intensity of focus ramping up to positively claustrophobic levels – it’s practically impossible not to get completely invested in her story, with all of its very human messy decisions, regrets and recriminations.
Composite Creatures has real staying power. You can practically feel it clinging to you as you read, working its way under your skin insidiously on its way to total absorption. Its subtle wrongness is wonderfully unsettling, its mysteries engaging and enticing, with a main character who feels utterly believable. A dark delight.
Composite Creatures is published by Angry Robot, and will be released in the UK on the 13th of April. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link, or buy it in the DRM-free eBook format of your choice from Angry Robot here.