A young woman struggles to take the reins of her father's failing taxidermy shop after his suicide.
Jessa-Lynn Morton only feels comfortable when she's scraping out the guts of a dead baby raccoon with delicate precision or drinking to forget the girl who got away. When her beloved father unexpectedly commits suicide, Jessa must carry the weight of her broken family on her own. "My father molded me to assist him; to be the one who helped shoulder the load," Jessa recalls. In the wake of his death, it doesn't take long before everything unravels. Jessa's mother starts placing stuffed and mounted animals in flagrante delicto in the shop window as well as "a parade of animals decked out in lingerie and posed in front of boudoir mirrors, alligator skulls with panties stuffed in their open mouths and dangling from their teeth." Meanwhile, Jessa's brother, Milo, sleeps through shifts at the local car dealership; Brynn, Jessa's first love and Milo's wife, is nowhere to be found; and the couple's children suffer from inattention and abandonment. Things begin to shift when Lucinda, an ambitious gallery owner, takes note of the strange, sexual displays in the taxidermy shop window, forcing Jessa to confront her childish anger about her mother's artwork as well as her chronic fear of intimacy with other women. Arnett's debut switchbacks through time, slowly skinning the pelt of Jessa's formative obsession with Brynn and her tragic relationship with her father, forged over preserving animals scraped off deserted Central Florida highways. Arnett writes in clear, perceptive prose, tracing Jessa's struggles growing up queer in the Deep South, yet the pacing and climax of this deeply psychological novel remain off-kilter. Jessa is stuck playing the eternal, repressed "straight" man to her creator's wry sense of humor—with mixed results. For all of Arnett's insights, the outsize mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the book feels as if a bear skin were draped over the skeleton of a much smaller mammal. Still, there's much to admire in Arnett's vision of Florida as a creative swamp of well-meaning misfits and in the sweet hopefulness of finding your way back to yourself through family.
An ambitious debut writer with extraordinary promise, Arnett brings all of Florida's strangeness to life through the lens of a family snowed under with grief.