Review: Mortician, heal thyself: A sex-obsessed funeral worker faces grief in a tragicomic novel

A woman in a dark shirt stands in front of a tall hedge, with the sun glinting overhead
Ella Baxter’s debut novel, “New Animal,” follows a funeral worker who finds herself bereaved.
(Leah Jing McIntosh)

On the Shelf

New Animal

By Ella Baxter
Two Dollar Radio: 212 pages, $18

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Amelia Aurelia, the 28-year-old protagonist of Ella Baxter’s debut novel, “New Animal,” knows she cannot outrun death. She spends her days working as a cosmetic mortician at her family’s funeral home in the Northern Rivers region of Australia, making the dead appear alive to comfort mourners. Amelia finds the bodies she works on “beyond beautiful, but only because they are so emptied of worry. Everything tense or unlikeable is gone. Like a shopping center in the middle of the night, they have lost all the chaos and clatter.” She understands that we will all lose that chaos and clatter sooner or later. “Life rests like a layer of chiffon over a body: one puff of wind and you’re dead,” or so Amelia explains to her neighbors at the local pub.

This sense of equanimity reveals itself to be as flimsy a cover as that chiffon, Amelia’s morbid wisdom an illusion of control over life’s impermanence. What follows is by turns a comedy of errors and a profound meditation on how to find mooring in the world when you have lost your anchor.

At the outset, Amelia carries an air of expertise over the needs of both the dead and the grieving, which is more than you can say about her field at large. Baxter captures the stuffy trappings of the modern mourning industry, which assumes the best container for grief is a set piece of someone’s great-aunt’s living room.


Aurelia’s Funeral Parlour is better than that. Amelia’s mother, Josie, knows the grieving need to keep their blood sugar up with the little marzipan fruits she molds each week and sets out in the foyer; they need to recline on the velvet settee in the curtained-off “mourner’s nook”; they need a box of tissues in every corner. Most of all, they need to be near their dead. While blending foundation on the death-stilled face of a young woman, Amelia reflects, “I wish I could tell her … how important it is for her people to see her like this, how they need to witness this image of her at peace before they can feel peace themselves. … I want to tell her that a woman can take another woman’s weight, and that my mother will find her mother and lead her away from it all.”

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But when that puff of wind comes unexpectedly for Amelia’s mother, she realizes how poorly her academic understanding of grief has prepared her. “I miss her and I need her, and she’s me, or a part of me at least, and I haven’t fully absorbed her yet,” she thinks as she looks at Josie’s empty body in the hospital bed. “Whose daughter am I now? Where has she gone?”

Amelia tries to feel her mother’s presence by “dous[ing] the bungalow in her perfume” and molding and eating a marzipan woman, but these efforts bring “no comfort. No peace.” She feels set upon by her stepfather’s self-centered hysterics, her brother’s throuple’s bold intrusions on funeral planning, her mother’s friend’s tear-streaked hugs.

And she finds she cannot bear the prescriptions she once recommended. She tries to outrun her grief, getting as far from her mother’s funeral as possible by camping out at the home of her biological father in remote Tasmania.

'New Animal,' by Ella Baxter
(Eleanor Kriseman)

In truth, Amelia’s serenity was always fragile. Baxter takes her title from Shakespeare’s image of bodies coupling as the “beast with two backs” — the state Amelia has sought via dating-app matches most nights in order to be “medicated by another body.” The warmth and vivacity of sex is an antidote to the “firm and cold” bodies she prepares for viewings. When Josie dies, however, the compartmentalization of Amelia’s days and nights collapses. In Tasmania she takes sex-as-medication to an extreme, flailing absurdly into the local BDSM community, seeking oblivion.


Writing about kink could be gimmicky or cringey, but Baxter imbues the BDSM scenes with just the right proportion of levity and self-awareness. Undressing at a kink club the night before her mother’s funeral, Amelia applauds herself: “I’m really bringing the energy tonight. I should tell people that I’ve never done this before, never been naked on this scale before. They would probably be amazed at how I have taken to it like a duck to water.” Of course, she is quickly disabused of her confidence, but she forges ahead — anything to avoid thinking about how her mother is now nothing more than “a husk.”

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What unites death and sex is the way they force us to confront our bodies; in bringing them together here, Baxter has really written a novel about the limits of the visceral and the need for the mind to sit with the hardest truths, the worst emotional pains, rather than trying to escape them. When Jack sits Amelia down and forces her to look at old photos of her mother — forces her to face her sadness — she realizes how little she understood about grief before.

“I’ve got facts; I’m full of facts,” she thinks. “It’s profound. It’s necessary. It’s human. Nobody tells you that it drips dye into your life, slowly coloring everything. Nobody tells you how unhelpful people can be, or how unfriendly the world can seem. Nobody tells you the hours involved in processing all the feelings and memories.”

Passages like these are some of the frankest and most resonant I have read about what death does to the bereaved. The author has clearly dedicated herself to grappling with death in a way that feels more akin to mourning in the Victorian era than the antiseptic conventions of Aurelia’s Funeral Parlor. As a textile artist, Baxter crafts intricate death shrouds topstitched with interpretations of Hubble Space Telescope images of star-birth in deep space. These shrouds, which are meant to envelope the body at its terminus, are in a sense the inverse of life’s “layer of chiffon over a body.” In considering her preoccupations in the form of a novel, Baxter has encapsulated the agony of loss and the necessity of contending with it to find the new person you will become.

Martin is writing a book about American orphanhood for Bold Type Books.