Deep in British Columbia, at the turn of the 20th century, lies Winteridge: a small village perched on an enormous lake made famous by the monster said to haunt its depths.
Twelve-year-old Iris Sparks lives in Winteridge with her brother; her working-class Welsh mother, Llewelyna; and her blue-blooded father from England, a progressive bohemian who has brought his family to Canada for an adventure.
But amid the idyllic, Edwardian setting, there are dangers lurking. A blend of Welsh and Indigenous stories of a predatory lake monster take real shape for young Iris as she begins to unravel the truth behind her mother's dark fairy tales, and watches in horror as her mother increasingly succumbs to seizures.
As the First World War reaches its height, Iris must contend with the demands of a deteriorating mother and the harsh realities of a toxic love triangle. All the while, Iris's mind continues to exert its strange and awesome power, and she and her entire community must find a way to survive at the mercy of otherworldly beasts and a hungry darkness.
About the author
DANIA TOMLINSON is an MFA graduate of the University of British Columbia. Dania grew up in the Okanagan, and still lives there with her husband and young daughter. Dania's fiction has won awards and been published in literary magazines, including Room and SubTerrain. Our Animal Hearts is her first novel.
Longlisted for the 2019 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic
A Canadian Living Best Book of 2018
"[A] gem. . . . Ambitious. . . . Written with much lyricism, the narrative proves both riveting and moving." —Toronto Star
"Dania Tomlinson blurs the lines between truth and fairy tale in her evocative debut novel" —Canadian Living
"The assurendness of Tomlinson's prose supports [Our Animal Hearts] sweep and sensibility. [Tomlinson] write with equal confidence about the struggles of the period, the human condition and the natural world." —The Georgia Straight
"Is malevolence an ancient spirit in a lake or simply a weakness deep in the human heart? Our Animal Hearts is a story steeped in the loneliness of a wilderness town, rich in its characters and their flawed struggles to thrive and to love. An atmospheric and gripping debut." —Helen Simonson, internationally bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War
"Dania Tomlinson puts into words everything I have intuited about British Columbia: that a sort of magic rules here. Tomlinson blurs the seams between reality and myth, offering a story about stories—the narratives we inherit and the ones we choose to tell. From this novel's spectral beasts to the wild girl at its core, I found Our Animal Hearts totally entrancing." —Eliza Robertson, author of Demi-Gods
"Our Animal Hearts is a brilliant and exhilarating tour de force. The writing is superb, and Tomlinson is a born storyteller, seamlessly blending local myth and Welsh folklore to weave a novel that never loses sight of the beauty that lurks at the heart of evil." —Wayne Grady, nationally bestselling author of Emancipation Day and Up From Freedom
Water monsters and other beasts in the OkanaganDisclaimer: I won a copy of this book via the Goodreads Giveaways program.
I generally find literary novels to be a challenge to review/rate because they often aren't the sort of thing that you 'like'. They're not asking to be liked or to provide entertainment in the same way genre fiction does. So when I say I didn't like this book, that's not meant as a criticism, exactly. It was an engaging, well-written piece of fiction and an excellent debut.
Iris is a preteen of British descent living in the Okanagan around the turn of the last century. Her working-class Welsh mother prefers to be called by her first name, drifts around their fanciful house with her pet peacock generally defying propriety, and tells alarming legends or fairy stories. Her father is upper-class English and generally absent. Iris's mother may be a seer, a character from legend, a madwoman, an abusive parent, an epileptic, an abused child, unfaithful, or a mother of monsters. Iris is her mother's daughter and lives in her mother's world of magic and monsters. It is not a kind world.
I would have enjoyed more emphasis on the supernatural elements, and less of the dark heart of man, but that's not the sort of book this is. It reminded me of Gone With The Wind - selfishness, pettiness, jealousy, cruelty and a lack of taking responsibility for one's actions wrapped up in a story about coming of age as your world falls to the violence and loss of wartime. This is not a book about the redemptive power of stories. It is not a story about using magic to escape or defeat darkness.
However, there is much to like. The setting - a tiny lakefront settlement in the Okanagan in the early 1900s - is tangible, rich, earthy and otherworldly by turns and all at once. I appreciated the nuanced portrayal of diverse communities, both their existence and the challenges they faced. I hadn't previously been aware of a significant Japenese community in the Okanagan working the orchards, and while the book doesn't quite cover both wars, it does stretch up to the Japanese internment tragedy. The First Nations community exist mostly as ghosts or a marginal presence, quite literally unseen or half-seen at the edges of things, and the tension between British-descent Canadians and immigrants, and other white (specifically Eastern-European) immigrants and their children was also handled well. Supernatural elements similarly feature a blending of influences, most strongly in the water monster in the lake, who is referred to by Welsh, First Nations, and Japanese terms.
This story is both beautiful - ethereal, intricate, magical - and horrific in its portrayal of humanity. Its excellent quality, historical detail, imaginative format, and philosophical positioning will likely make it a polarizing read, with both fervent fans and those who won't appreciate its uniqueness. I wouldn't be surprised to see it shortlisted in more than a few of next year's literary prizes.