Author: Nicola West
Title: Catch Us The Foxes
Firstly, an announcement. Catch Us the Foxes is officially the worst book I’ve read this year – I know, I know, the year hasn’t ended yet, but I sincerely hope I won’t read anything worse than this – and it really had some solid contenders for this dubious award. But none of the other horrible books of 2021 seems written specifically with money in mind and nothing else. Well, there’s always a first. Now that the weight is off my chest and I can breathe freely, I can muster my writing skill to explain why I think that you should avoid this book like a plague.
And to think that it all started so innocuously. I was asked to review a thriller written by an Australian writer about “a small Aussie town and its secrets – and I thought, “what can go wrong?” What indeed. The list of what didn’t would be much, much shorter, but as I really need to share my misery with you, you’ll be treated to at least some of the cardinal sins of Catch Us the Foxes.
Sin no. 1. Total lack of research. The plot of Catch Us the Foxes is built around a villainous quasi-religious cult comprising all the most important adult people in the small town of Kiama, NSW. Said cult traces its roots to English colonists who brought from the British Isles their pagan rituals of celebrating Beltane. In West’s novel, Beltane is celebrated by organizing a typical 17th century fox hunt through the Australian rainforest, complete with hunting horns and whole the aristocratic attire, though without horses (don’t ask me about the sensibility of the idea of wearing riding boots for a trek through Australian outback, or white leggings, for that matter); but as apparently foxes aren’t good enough for the nefarious purposes of the cult, the cult hunts little girls dressed in white dresses and fox masks, quoting the biblical Song of Solomon in the process. Human sacrifice is obviously a must, as is the branding of the survivors with sacred geometrical runes. There is a slight problem with obtaining all the little girls for the hunt, and of course, as not all are killed at once, with erasing or suppressing their memories, but the cult has a well-known psychiatrist in their midst, and he’s simply a miracle worker and a head of a vast nest of psychiatric minions everywhere in NSW who will get him all the children he needs.
I seriously don’t know where to start with indicating what is wrong with this idea. Every single part of it showcases a total lack of thought and research on the author’s part. I read this, my eyes bleeding, and imagined the author coming up with this unholy mixture while sitting with a bottle of wine or something stronger, and then another, and another, because one bottle would clearly not be enough to come up with such idiotic concepts. Beltane, fox hunting, child abuse, psychiatrical ring of kidnappers, and Song of Solomon. Yeah, that’s a sure recipe for success!
Sin no. 2. Poor writing. The novel is written very badly, there’s no way around it. The dialogues seem forced and artificial, and the constant intrusion of slang words doesn’t make it come across as more authentic – just more juvenile. The author seemed unable to decide whether she wanted to write a slick thriller or a girly memoir, so she combined both styles and delivered a lifeless monstrosity. Like the bower bird mentioned in the novel, West just gathered all the shiny, colorful bits she could think of – but unlike the bird, she was unable to construct a cohesive or even remotely aesthetic structure from them.
(A side note: The main character seems to constantly suffer from an undiagnosed digestive disease: there’s always either something lodged in her throat or in the pit of her stomach. She should really see someone.)
Sin no. 3. Flat, lifeless characters that quickly turn into stereotypes (often offensive and always painful to read). The protagonist is a very very special snowflake: a wondrously beautiful woman ogled by every male in town, even gay. She doesn’t realize her own beauty, because she is asexual and the only thing less appealing to her than men are women (it’s a loose quote, I really can’t be forced to page through this drivel again). She’s obviously very tenacious and smart, with a chip on her shoulder the size of the Empire State Building, and an inferiority complex toward her best female friend (who ends up dead at the very beginning, but that’s beside the point, as we’re treated to symptoms of that inferiority complex to the very, very end of the book). She’s also a psychopath, “genetically,” but as the author couldn’t really decide which would be better, and apparently couldn’t have been bothered to check the differences, she actually comes off more as a sociopath.
One of her friends is gay from the tender age of five, as he already was being bullied about it even in preschool, because apparently in Australia one knows their sexual preferences and cultural norms regarding sex and gender since birth. As an adult he is the most outlandish walking stereotype of gay the author could come up with: he is a controversial artist making installations of blood-filled tampons, who wears a net singlet and Alexander Wang clothes to an arduous trek through the rainforest, he is emotional and irrational verging on hysterical, and he’s sexually promiscuous to the point of getting favors through sex. Also, among the town’s Nathans and Daniels he’s the only one with a non-Western/Christian name – Jarrah is a type of eucalyptus native to Australia.
Another prominent male character is a middle-aged man obsessed with sex and his good looks; for a respected journalist who garnered loads of awards he’s unbelievably dumb and self-centred to the point of myopia, and almost comically unsure of his own manliness. There are virtually no other women in the novel except for a mentally ill and heavily medicated middle-aged woman, who ends up dead as well. Need I continue?
Sin no. 4. Shock value above all. The author clearly tried her best at coming up with the most convoluted scenario. She actually succeeded, but at the price of destroying all of the internal logic (however tenuous it was from the start), readers’ investment, and credibility. The final scenario is simply unbelievable enough to jarr even the most dedicated readers out of the reading experience. It’s not anchored in the earlier events, and it has no foundations whatsoever, be they psychological or circumstantial. I guess it goes without saying that there’s no character development here, consistency, or even a pinch of probability.
Sin no. 5. Demonizing otherness and subscribing to the conspiracy theory mentality. I mean, wow. If I were a Kiama inhabitant, I’d be considering a libel suit. Kiama is the root of all evil here; xenophobic and homophobic (it seems that the author doesn’t know the difference between the two), going as far in their hatred as to organize an impromptu lynch on a murder suspect. The resident gay had to escape to Sydney, and the second one adamantly refuses to be recognized as gay. All men are swine, and women are entirely without agency – with the exception of our special snowflake, of course. The town’s police are criminally inept. Also, let’s not forget Kiama is the nest of the nefarious cult. Clearly, there’s not one sane person in Kiama (well, maybe one, but he’s a crypto gay [which is clearly a minus in the author’s book, as she spends lots of time on this tidbit] and gullible to the point of idiocy, so he doesn’t count)!
There are many more sins, but this review is already too long. Let me wrap it up by saying that I am honestly astounded that this novel has been published. It should have been ruthlessly edited, and then edited again and again, and even then I’d think twice about pubbing it. This was my second Australian novel this year, and the record is dismal; I’m going to do a very careful research before I reach out for another Aussie book.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.