Erin Emily Ann Vance’s first novel, Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers, reads like a Wes Anderson movie set in a Robert Kroetsch small town. Clocking in at a brisk 97 pages, the book is more an extended character study than a traditional novel—plot is less important than personalities, and we jump frequently to various vignettes from protagonists’ lives.
The book focuses on the four children of the quirky Morris family, the darker and grittier Royal Tenenbaums of their southern Alberta town. There’s Sylvia, the tough and buff rock climber who’s unsatisfied with her loving husband and struggling to like her emotionally fragile infant daughter. There’s Agatha, the amateur beekeeper who’s trying desperately to keep her colonies alive after having eight miscarriages of her own. There’s Teddy, the albino taxidermist who lives in an abandoned rail car in a swamp. And then there’s Margot, the youngest, a pregnant barista at the local café who has two daughters by two unknown lovers—and who has just died, with her daughters and unborn child, in mysterious circumstances.
Margot’s death and subsequent funeral provide the narrative backbone of the book, but Vance is less concerned with solving the mystery than she is with exploring the surviving siblings’ reactions. Their grief is sad without being maudlin, showing the hardened resignation of late-twenties siblings who have already lost both parents and gone through numerous divorces and miscarriages. The Morris siblings are more confused than crushed, and their numb reactions to Margot’s death show the kind of long-lingering, almost mundane grief that isn’t often represented in fiction. When the mystery does get solved, in the book’s final paragraph, it doesn’t provide any feelings of relief or resolution to the Morrises. It’s predictable in a way that feels completely true to life—a pointless death that has robbed these siblings of their little sister for no good reason.
When not dwelling on the fallout from Margot’s death, the book wanders through episodes from the siblings’ lives. There’s local lore about the woman who once owned their childhood home: a mysterious figure called “the Wasp,” who murdered a diabetic man by filling his veins with sugar water and having hummingbirds feast on his sweet blood. But the spectacle of the Morris family leaves little room for others. Ultimately, Vance creates four complex, bizarre, yet emotionally real characters. The book’s only shortcoming is its shortness—after following these characters for 100 pages, it’s unsatisfying to leave them so soon. I’d eagerly read another 200 pages featuring the Morris siblings, and I hope Vance writes more about them in the future.
—Bruce Cinnamon is the author of The Melting Queen (NeWest).