This book is beautiful, and sorrowful, and frightening, and real.
Wendell is a taxidermist. He understands the structure and fragility of the flesh. He lacks illusions about the meaning of being alive. He inhabits a world of the tangible. He can’t see the constellations in the stars, even though his partner, Frank, tries many times over the years to point them out to him. ‘Ursa Major doesn’t look a thing like a bear,’ Wendell says, ‘and Orion’s belt is just three stars in a line. It could be any three stars. It was always too clear to me that there was no real pattern between them, only some tricks sailors made up to guide them home. That doesn’t make the sky a map. Still, I tried to see. But I never could.’
But now, after over 60 years together, Frank is slipping away, his mind failing, his body failing, and all Wendell can do is look after the two of them and watch and wait. ‘If he could name just one of them,’ Wendell thinks, looking at the stars, after a trying incident with Frank, ‘If he could name just one of them, it would be all right. I could let it all go, Daisy and him and our whole life, I could let it all go quiet and easy, if I could hear him tell me just one of them. That’s the last thing I would ever ask.’
Frank can’t, though. He can’t do anything anymore.
This book is called ‘Hide’, because Wendell and Frank have lived an isolated life in order to be together, in post-World War 2 North Carolina, where two men living together was a dangerous and illegal thing. They’ve had to hide. And it’s called ‘Hide’ because Wendell is a retired taxidermist and his understanding is informed by intimate knowledge of the seat of life, the flesh, which for Wendell becomes a metaphor for layers of meaning – or meaninglessness.
‘It’s a long work,’ he says, describing his trade, ‘slow and full of waiting, shaping your way from the outside in…Some days you go to lay down the next layer and can’t tell that the last three are even there, and with each one, details of the surface become less and less distinct, and you wonder if that shell will ever be strong enough to hold up the hide. Then you lay down the next layer anyway.’ And a bit later, contemplating the flesh again, ‘It’s the skin and skin alone that makes any of us worthy of love or kindness. Underneath it, we are monsters, every living thing.’
Wendell talks a lot about how the skin holds us together, how he’s amazed we’re not blind, our eyeballs being protected only by the fragile layer of our eyelids. It helps explain how stoically he accepts Frank’s quick deterioration and all the grim and foul duties that fall to Wendell as a result.
I’m making this book sound awful, and in many ways it is awful, but the things that happen to Wendell and Frank happen to us all eventually. As Wendell says, you don’t get to choose.
I cried at the end of this book, and I am still feeling teary now, and if you have the stomach to follow this ageing pair reaching the end of their lives, you will be rewarded for it. It turns out the flesh is as important at a relationship’s close as it was in the beginning, for reasons that are both the same and different.
Hide by Matthew Griffin is available to borrow from Warwickshire Libraries. Click here to borrow your copy today.
Blog written by C.T
Note from the blog author – this book contains scenes that some readers may find upsetting.