Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What I wanted all along was to bury myself deep where it’s warm and never come out. I won, they didn’t.

Melancholy and compelling, Caroline Hardaker has captured the narrow wistfulness of self-inflicted isolation. As we draw ourselves away from the world, tuck ourselves into the warmth of our four encroaching walls, it becomes harder and harder to connect with anything and anyone that exists outside ourselves. We chain our doors, check the locks, and keep ourselves in as much as we keep others out. While this is not a book about pandemics, or plagues, or even about quarantines, it nevertheless manages to invoke a sense of catharsis in relation to current events.

Hardaker takes us to a future where the apocalypse never fully arrived. Humanity mostly kept up, albeit with sacrifices. Small details reveal the cracks: natural animals are largely extinct, the sky is lilac with pollution. People die young if they lack the funds to pay for healthcare. Yet, these facts are presented in a manner that is nonchalant, normalized. It’s not about the world at large; instead, it’s about Norah’s tiny, internal universe. It’s about her thoughts, her fears, and her own inability to connect.

Easton Grove matches Art and Norah together based on genetic compatibility. Together, they’ll share the key to longevity: a small bundle of silky grey fur who they name Nut. Even as Norah’s ability to reach out to her old friends degrades, she finds solace in Nut’s deep blue eyes and unconditional love. Her peaked, translucent ears, the way she curls up on the couch in Norah’s lap, her tiny little paws – to Norah, that’s what love is.

Certainly, she loves Art too. At least, she tells herself she does. They find a rhythm together, cohabiting but rarely connecting in meaningful ways. When Art proposes, Norah knows she should be excited, ready to shout it out to the world. Instead, she finds herself hiding the engagement ring as though it’s shameful. It’s a piece of herself that she doesn’t yet recognize as “her,” maybe even a piece of herself that doesn’t belong.

As Norah descends deeper and deeper into the internal passageways of her own soul, she grows further estranged from Art. They both try to bridge the gap in their own ways with Christmas gifts or dinners at special places, but Art finds himself seeking absolution in his writing. When he looks at Nut, he is certain he hears his own voice echoing back at him until he can hardly tell where he ends and Nut begins.

The author’s past experience as a poet shines through in her lush, intimate prose. This is a book made up of emotions. It is a peek inside a soul, told honestly and authentically. There is neither action nor adventure, but there is loneliness, isolation, creeping sadness, and a silent, fragile horror. From the first page, Norah’s thoughts had me captured. During 2020, my own world compressed to four walls and a pit in my stomach that kept me from connecting with others even when I knew it would be best to reach out. Norah, however, finds herself caught in a different sort of trap that is of her own making.

Norah’s world compresses down as she avoids her friends’ calls and texts. She becomes avoidant on every front, pouring all of her energy into Nut. Even when she does go out for drinks or speaks on the phone with the people she used to care for, she finds she has nothing to say. The patterns they used to exist in were destroyed the day she joined Easton Grove’s ovum organi program. The day she and Art met brought Nut out from her box.

Norah’s struggles feel incredibly honest. She is a deeply flawed person; most of her unhappiness is brought on by her own choices. Yet, it’s hard to imagine any other path for her. She builds up walls out of a desire for self preservation. A cozy, metaphorical den where she can curl up into a ball. Just her – and Nut. Though, really, is there a difference between the two? In Norah’s mind, Nut often seems to be an extension of her own identity rather than a truly separate being.

She’s driven to care for and protect Nut. Yet, when push comes to shove and it’s time for Nut to be cracked open… she falls back into herself once more. Fundamentally, Norah will do whatever she must to protect the idea of her own goodness, her own rightness. She’s wrapped herself up too tightly and committed too deeply to the path she’s on to change course. And if that means sacrificing her own morality, twisting it into an unrecognizable mass of excuses and justifications, then perhaps that’s the path she’ll have to take.

Many thanks to Angry Robot for providing this review copy. Composite Creatures will be released on April 13th.

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About the Author

Author. Poet. Novelist. Occasional librettist. Sporadic puppeteer.

Caroline Hardaker lives in the north east of England and writes quite a lot of things. She earned her BA (English Literature) and MA (Cultural and Heritage Studies) from Newcastle University, and her main problem is limiting herself to one idea at once, or maybe two ideas, or three…

Caroline is currently working on her second novel – a slightly surrealist affair. One day she’d love to finish her plans for a graphic novel or two and complete those scripts tucked away in her top shelf (she does like to multitask).

On Twitter: @carolinehwrites

Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

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