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The Art of Taxidermy: an extract

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot is a moving and beautifully lyrical YA verse novel. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Text Prize and was published this month. 

LOTTIE is fascinated with death. She collects birds, lizards and other small dead animals she finds, trying preserve them, to hold onto the life they once had. Her aunt tries to put a stop to this worrying obsession, but her father can see a scientist’s mind at work, and he introduces her to the art of taxidermy.

For Lottie, the beauty and tenderness she finds in her preserved creatures provide a way for her to feel close to the mother she lost.

The Art of Taxidermy is an exquisitely imagined verse novel about sadness and loss, and the way art and beauty can help us make sense of it all.

Read an extract below from this mesmerising novel.


LOVE

At the age of eleven
I fell in love
with death.
I found a gecko
in a dark corner
of a room.
Its lifeless eyes open,
its small bulbous toes
splayed
as if about to leap away.

I wanted to keep it,
to hold on.
I wanted to preserve
its lively expression.

I placed it on my dresser
and watched
its stomach deflate,
its scaly skin dry and curl
and the almost-leap
slowly decay.

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Later, I found a crow,
its feathers so black
they shone
with a blue tinge
in the bright sunshine.

It lay on its side
at the base of a jacaranda—
purple flowers scattered beneath—
as if it had fallen asleep,
floated down serenely
from a branch above.

I stroked its sleek feathers
expecting it to wake,
flap strong wings and fly off,
but it slept on.

I returned later
with a shoebox—
a cardboard coffin—
and carried my sleeping beauty
home to accompany my
withering gecko.

THE COLLECTION

Three brown tree frogs,
two skinks,
one New Holland honeyeater,
one ant-eaten galah,
one dusty sparrow
and one fresh, cat-killed
red-belly black—
perfect,
except for
four small puncture marks.

A GLASS HOUSE

Father bought
a large glass aquarium
to house them,
to contain
the fusty fug of death.

BURIED TREASURE

I discovered a sheep’s skull
half-buried in a paddock
not far from the house.

I might never have noticed it
but for a small murder
of crows, feasting.

As I got closer, I could smell
the rotting flesh
and hear the hum of blowflies.

The crows yarked
and flapped away.
Blowflies scattered and buzzed.

The exposed side was picked clean
in places by birds and foxes.
White bone glinted in the bright day.

I tucked my nose and mouth
under my jumper
to avoid gagging

and sliced through a small piece
of woolly skin and sinew
until the skull came away.

The semi-buried side was damp with
skin and patchy grey wool,
and a withered eye.


ANNIE I

Annie was my best friend.
She was everything
I was not.

Her hair was the colour
of wheat at sunset,
her eyes as blue as a summer sky,
her lips the satin sheen of pink pearls,
her bone-white skin
never tanned.

She was pale and luminous,
a ghostly angel, but,
like me, she had a dark heart.

EGYPT

At school, Mr Morris
showed us slides of mummies,
long-dead kings and queens.

The earliest Egyptians
buried their dead in small pits
in the desert, where the heat
and dryness of the sand
dehydrated and preserved the bodies.

I thought of my sheep’s skull
and its semi-buried side.

I borrowed books about the Egyptians
and found photographs
of ancient people
enduring beyond death.

Decomposition akin to art:
the shrivelled limbs,
the shrunken shoulders and chest,
the exposed clavicle,
the long ropey necks,
the perfectly preserved ear,
the missing nose,
the full head of hair crowning
the withered face.

I tore my favourite pages
from the books.

PRESERVATION I

I studied my beautiful corpses,
in their different states
of decay.

I preserved their scales and bones
and beaks and claws and feathers,
stroke by fastidious pencil stroke,

in dozens of sketchbooks,
with drawings and notes.

AUNT HILDA

That girl, she exclaimed,
having seen my latest addition—
the sheep’s skull.
She is turning into a freak!

Annie and I peered through the crack
in the double sliding-doors.
Father smoked his cigar,
his full-bearded face expressionless.

She’s fine.
His words, accompanied
by a large plume of white smoke,
drifted to the ceiling.

She is a girl, Wolfgang!
My aunt stood abruptly, hands on wide hips.
Charlotte needs dolls and…women.
Not dead things!

Father released a smoky sigh.
I knew what he was thinking—
It was not his fault that Mother had died
and we were left alone.

I will take her. She can live with me.

I held my breath. I could not bear it.

She is fine, Father said,
locking eyes.

I breathed out.

She has a scientist’s heart.
It is in the genesShe is curious
and she is bright.


The Art of Taxidermy is available now in all good bookshops, on the Text website (free postage!) and as an ebook.

The Art of Taxidermy

The Art of Taxidermy

Sharon Kernot
$19.99

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