Layer 1: the book. Composite Creatures is the first novel by Caroline Hardaker, a poet from the northeast of England. The blurb promises the story of a couple “learning how to co-exist” in an increasingly hostile world, and the “perfect little bundle of fur” that can apparently help them. This is intriguing for what it doesn’t reveal: what sort of a novel will this really be? The title turns out to have two meanings, but we’ll get to that.
Layer 2: the setting. The first thing we learn is that many, perhaps most, animals are a thing of the past. Our narrator, Norah, tells it like this:
A long time ago, Mum told me that in her youth the sky would flock in spring and autumn with migrating starlings, finches, even gulls. Huge grey and white beacons of the sea. I've heard recordings of their calls—somewhere between a lighthouse's horn and a baby’s wail. I sometimes close my eyes and imagine how it would sound as hundreds of gulls moved across the blue like shot-spray … (p. 6)
This sets up the idea of nature as something strange yet still captivating, a sense that’s underlined when Norah comes across a frog and finds it “indescribably actual.” She has that reaction because often, the missing actual animals have been replaced by artificial ones. This doesn’t impress Norah’s mother: “Are we supposed to think that’s a cuckoo?” she says at one point, “The little patchwork prince. You can almost hear the clockwork” (p. 7). Norah, being less used to “natural” nature, is more ambivalent towards the artificial kind, a tension which underpins the entire book.
I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say that the world of Composite Creatures does not feel strictly plausible. Life (as much as we see of it) carries on close to normal, to a greater degree than one might anticipate had there been mass extinctions. There’s a disease in the novel’s background called the greying, which may be a variation of cancer or dementia, or both, but above all it feels like something out of a story. The reason these observations are not a criticism is that the setting of Composite Creatures doesn’t have to be plausible when it is so solidly imagined. There’s a scene early on where Norah is in a restaurant and notices a fish in the aquarium held together with stitches. Composite Creatures is built on striking images like this, metaphors that run through the novel: a world, a life, a persona stitched together.
Layer 3: the protagonist. Norah has begun a new relationship, with a writer named Art, and she’s still finding her feet. She recalls two picnics, noting how different she felt each time. With her previous partner, Luke, things happened so easily: “At no point did I need to smile to show him how I felt, he just knew” (p. 112). With Art, Norah feels she's just going through the motions, “as though we moved like automatons” (p. 112). She describes these as different versions of herself.
This is one of Hardaker's recurring themes: the idea that we show different facets of ourselves in different situations, thereby becoming “composite creatures.” Norah wonders how her friends will react to Art, and how best to present their relationship. She later reflects: “We go out of our way to look like we’re one thing, when really we’re something else. But when we're taken at our word—the difference between the out and the in doesn’t matter” (p. 196). So this isn't so much a tale of becoming personally “authentic” as of finding and accepting the right kind of artifice.
Layer 4: Easton Grove. There is something oddly businesslike about Norah’s and Art’s relationship. Why are they giving each other a portfolio and resumé on a date, one wonders. The organization behind their match-up is Easton Grove, a medical company introduced with a queasy mixture of natural and manufactured imagery:
I had never seen greener grass, but it squeaked beneath your shoes like clingfilm. The air there was sweeter—not fresher, exactly, but like the synthetic scent of laundry liquid ... Everything there seemed artificially bright, as if the smog between earth and sun had been sterilised. (p. 24)
Exactly what Easton Grove does is not spelled out—at least, not to begin with—but it is an ominous presence throughout the book. There’s one scene where a couple of Easton Grove representatives turn up at Norah’s workplace, wishing to speak to her, and they are shown to have more authority than Norah’s own boss. There is also the suggestion that Easton Grove’s process interferes with the organic course of human relationships. When a package arrives with lists of Norah’s and Art’s likes and dislikes, Norah thinks: “Wouldn’t it be better for both of us if Art shared those things with me naturally? Besides, without context, what did they even mean?”
Layer 5: Nut, that “perfect little ball of fur” from Easton Grove. Nut is … well, some sort of animal, though it’s quite hard to visualize what. As Norah puts it, “She was all the cats my mum used to own, and she was all the pets owned by generations of families before the trend died” (p. 51). But Nut doesn’t seem quite like a pet, because Norah goes out of her way to ensure that the new arrival doesn’t pick up any animal behavior. Even a simple chew toy might encourage Nut to get a taste for hunting, and Norah “couldn’t stand the idea of causing [Nut] to want more” than to be around the home, “all for the sake of a squeezy rubber mouse” (p. 57).
This may seem to be overly cautious on Norah’s part, and raises questions about what relationship she really has to Nut … and here I’m dancing around a spoiler, one I don’t want to reveal as it would give the whole game away. What I will say is that Hardaker has structured her novel so that the key revelation, which one might expect to come near the beginning so the implications can be explored, comes at the end. Canny readers may guess what it is, but that’s not the point.
So, the experience of reading Composite Creatures is one of traveling through these different layers, as ever finer details come into focus. If you haven’t worked out the novel’s secret, this journey will end with a moment of revelation. If you have, the outcome is still satisfying, because you can appreciate the breadth and depth of what Hardaker has imagined. The structure of Composite Creatures represents the emotional truth for Norah: it starts with the external world, and peels back the layers of her life until it ends with her contemplating what everything has meant. In this way, Composite Creatures is shaped more like life than neatly ordered fiction. Norah’s tale brings raw emotion into a world that might not be all that artificial after all.