Book Review: The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller

The Memory of Animals – Claire Fuller (Tin House Books, 2023)

I received an Advanced e-copy of this book thanks to the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. Publication date is June 6, 2023.

As the world is ravaged by a deadly pandemic, Neffy has volunteered as a patient for a vaccine trial. Despite the protests of those closest to her, she signs on and shows up in London to be injected with both virus and vaccine, just as the virus seems to be mutating into a new form.

As the world falls apart outside, Neffy and other volunteers struggle to survive within the safe confines of their building. They are a small and varied group, each with their own experiences and opinions on what to do next as their supplies run low.

Leon, another volunteer, has brought along a controversial new technology he was developing. He introduces Neffy to the concept of Revisiting, the ability to return in complete detail to past events. Over and over again, Neffy cannot resist the lure of her former life, the chance to see once more her mother, her father, or the man she loves. Through these Revisits we get to know Neffy as a child, the turmoil of her upbringing – her father’s hotel on a Greek Island and her mother’s constant movement from one relationship to the next. And we see Neffy’s love for the natural world, for the ocean, and particularly for the octopus.

Having read two previous books by Claire Fuller – Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons – I see a lot of the same themes here in The Memory of Animals. Like her other novels, this is full of lush descriptions of the natural world. Setting is hugely important – whether it’s the claustrophic confines of the patient dwellings in the middle of London or the warm beaches of Greece. Again Fuller uses characters cut off in some way from the rest of the world. Water seems to be another recurrent theme.

Neffy herself is a fascinating character and who she is really drives the plot. In the present she is unsure in the face of a huge decision, paralyzed by her longing to return to the past (manifested in the actual ability of Revisiting). At the same time, she still seemed more decisive and sure of herself than the Neffy we get to know from the past. That Neffy was perhaps more decisive but seemed to run from her problems. Her decisions were often impulsive, based on emotions, and she refused to listen to those around her. She would be a hard person to be in a relationship with.

This wasn’t always an easy book to read, especially coming out a real life pandemic. It was both a reminder of how much worse things could have been and a warning of what could be. It was easy to cheer for Neffy and the other volunteers, remembering the news of the early vaccine trials for COVID-19. But Fuller wisely unfolds these characters and let’s us see them as real, sometimes unlikeable people, with complex motivations for participating in this trial. The survivors of a pandemic are not necessarily the best or smartest people but, perhaps, the luckiest.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller”

  1. I’ve read a few Claire Fuller books and really enjoyed them. I’m surprised she’s tackled the whole pandemic storyline, but I suppose we should expect more books like this in the next few years – what else were writers doing when they were in isolation? LOL

    1. In a way, I can see how writing pandemic stories is a coping mechanic and so I think we will see a lot more in the years to come. This is clearly not our pandemic and so felt far enough away from reality for me.

  2. For me, an important memory is the children whose parents agreed to vaccine trials. Shots are scary for kids, and protecting children from danger is a priority for parents. Seeing everyone take the risk felt like an important moment in what it means to be human.

    1. Oh gosh, I still getting teary thinking about that. Those brave kids and their parents. I don’t know if I could do it as a parent. I’ll always remember Pearl’s first vaccine appointment. We went on the very first possible day and there was this sort of grim excitement amongst the parents there.

    2. Peter and I talked about waiting because several of our friends weren’t anti-vax but wait when it came to their kids. But we agreed that either we trusted the science or we didn’t and that wouldn’t change.

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