The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

With five absorbing novels published in eight years, Claire Fuller has rapidly become one of the essential voices in contemporary literary fiction. Her accolades include a Desmond Elliott Prize for Our Endless Numbered Days and a Costa Novel Award for Unsettled Ground, as well as multiple nominations. The Memory of Animals, her latest work, begins in a familiar mid-pandemic landscape but takes on additional facets as the protagonist relives episodes from her past and ponders the compassion owed to animals and humanity.

Neffy has nothing to lose when she enrols in a controversial vaccine trial in London. It’s clear that the twenty-seven-year-old is in disgrace for some reason, and hopes that in contributing to medical advancements she can atone for what she’s done. (Plus she gets paid.) There is a pandemic underway whose specifics Fuller wisely keeps hazy: all we’re told is that the Dropsy virus causes a fatal swelling of the organs. Judging by the emptiness of the city streets and later dystopian scenes of abandoned homes and cars, looting, and corpses littering public spaces, it’s significantly more deadly than Covid. Neffy is taking a huge risk in allowing herself to be injected with the virus after inoculation through the Vaccine BioPharm trial.

The novel is presented as Neffy’s journal, the chapters labelled Day Zero, Day One, and so on. The bulk of it takes place in the two weeks she spends on a locked unit with four fellow test subjects: Leon, Piper, Rachel, and Yahiko. It wasn’t at all a sure thing that Neffy would wake up after receiving the virus, so when she resurfaces into consciousness she is assumed to be invincible: the only one among them who had time to complete the trial before the situation became much worse outside and the volunteers were left to their fate. Now that she is immune, she can go out for supplies. The rationed frozen meals and packaged snacks will soon be gone, and Neffy could just be their salvation – and even a new Eve.

In the meantime, Leon has introduced her to an experimental technology he was working on before the trial: the Revisitor allows one to reinhabit a memory. Again, the particulars are nebulous; we only know that it works via pebble-like sensors held in the palms. Revisiting is a clever way for Fuller to give Neffy’s history without tedious flashbacks – even though that’s essentially what these are. The adult Neffy is not time travelling, so she can’t alter the past, only observe it again. She never knows where she’ll go. Perhaps her father’s hotel in Greece; or her mum’s Dorset home, where Neffy started an affair with her stepbrother, Justin; or the aquarium where she worked and developed a special relationship with an octopus.

To say more about how these strands intersect with each other and feed into the main narrative could occasion spoilers. The elements feel randomly assembled, but together they do make up the psychological background to Neffy’s decision making. Her bonds with her father and with the octopus, in particular, are the key to understanding why she wanted to take part in this trial. A love of animals has made her sensitive to suffering, and her vegetarianism comes to be an important plot point.

The characterisation of the four other cast members is somewhat thin; apart from their gender and ethnicity, we learn just one or two details about them. This effectively limits the focus to Neffy and her story, while the others’ experiences might have broadened the view and flexed some different authorial muscles. A short scene in which they celebrate Rachel’s birthday on the unit is the best instance of them functioning as an ensemble. The pacing is a little off as well: we’re nearly one-third through before Neffy first goes Revisiting, and too much of the high action, including several big reveals, are held back for the final 20 pages. 

To an extent, the novel is a locked-room mystery in that it becomes clear that the other four are keeping something from Neffy. For much of its length, though, it reminded me of works by Emily St John Mandel. The world-building and tech are unlikely to stand up to science fiction fans’ scrutiny, but it has just the right dose of the speculative for literary fiction readers. It also happens to fit into a recent vogue for octopus novels such as Sea Change by Gina Chung, The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, and Remarkable Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. Whatever she may write about next, Claire Fuller is here to stay.

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Rebecca Foster is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer who writes for the TLS and Wasafiri and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Claire Fuller, The Memory of Animals (Fig Tree: London, 2023). 978-0241614822, 320 pp., hardback.

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