A Mortuary Make-Up Artist’s Guide to Grief and the Body: Ella Baxter’s “New Animal”

In Ella Baxter’s forthcoming novel New Animal, readers meet Amelia Aurelia, an under-thirty mortuary makeup artist whose life revolves around her next dating-app-provided conquest. Amelia lives rather carefree and rent-free in her parents’ bungalow and works as a make-up artist at the family’s funeral home. However, when a tragic fall kills Amelia’s mother, Amelia chooses to grieve in her own way — by traveling to Tasmania to stay with her all-but-estranged father. Tasmania offers Amelia more than time in the bush near her father’s house. After exploring the local dating scene via her faithful app, Amelia accepts an invitation to a local BDSM club, where her life begins breaking, perhaps for the better. Yet, Baxter’s novel isn’t just another self-destructive coping story. It’s an eloquent and philosophical novel that brings readers intimately close to death.

As this book rebelliously tackles death and grief, it may not be right for queasy readers. Amelia conveys her death-positive attitudes quite boldly, and she isn’t squeamish as she asserts that the deceased “are beyond beautiful, but only because they are so emptied of worry.” She observes that in the dead, “Everything tense or unlikable is gone. Like a shopping center in the middle of the night, they have lost all the chaos and clatter.” Via Amelia’s insightful, death-positive thoughts, Baxter’s writing possesses a poetic, reflective tone that assures readers death isn’t what we should fear. Perhaps what we should fear is ourselves.

The novel possesses many gentle reminders regarding mortality. However, what Baxter so cleverly does is weave biology and science into the conversation. Amelia often informs readers about the significance of the body, and at first her initial address of it is rather inglorious: “…we are both two, long fleshy sacks full of bones and electricity, and one day the switch will be flicked. We are on, and then we are off.” Because of the stereotypes people apply to her thanks to her given profession, Amelia dutifully acts as an informer who tells “people down at the pub that life rests like a layer of chiffon over the body: one puff of wind and you’re dead.” She observes that her revelations don’t necessarily sit well with others. This focus on the body’s biology blossoms into a new type of body positivity as Amelia expresses how she wishes people would realize “how loyal” their “casing is.” Amelia gently reminds us, “But your body. Your beautiful, beautiful body. It clings to you through it all.” Her philosophies about death positivity mingle with those about body positivity, opening critical conversations about humanity’s separation from one of the few universal experiences we actually share.

Through Amelia, Baxter provides a few revolutionary thoughts regarding grief. As Amelia wrestles with the loss of her mother, she struggles with the social and familial expectations placed on individuals as they navigate grief. She expresses that, in grieving, “your memory is completely short circuited” and “life becomes just a series of surprising incidents.” While humorous, even Baxter’s approach to Amelia’s involvement in the BDSM scene is a clinical examination of the ways individuals grieve. Amelia’s grief propels her deeper into the scene, where she briefly becomes so unhinged, so reckless with the subculture’s rules that even the instructor of the BDSM workshops she attends grows alarmed. However, Baxter once again carefully transforms the conversation into one about an individual’s experience with grief and the body, since Amelia’s activities cause her to reflect, “If anyone ever asks me how I dealt with this grief, I will tell them honestly: by killing the light of everything else around me.” By the novel’s end, however, even that conversation shifts to the body as Amelia acknowledges “Grieving my mother’s physical form made me connect to my own. We are our bodies, at the end of the day.”

Baxter’s character eloquently pulls the mask from not only the face of the death industry, but grief’s face as well. Amelia prompts readers to remember what an honor it is to work with the dead, that while working in the funeral industry, “It’s possible to find great beauty in [the] job.” Amelia’s experiences inspire readers to explore our desires and bodies regardless of tradition and society’s expectations. A wonderful novel, New Animal, is a groundbreaking, holistic call for reform, mostly of the self.

New Animals
Ella Baxter
Two Dollar Radio
February 15, 2022