If you’re squeamish, this book probably isn’t for you. Each page delivers shocking or mundane violence and descriptions of guts and gore so frank they become a kind of poetry. There is clear relish in Del Amo’s depictions, and there is nothing gratuitous about them; he brings us rivetingly close to each fold of decrepit skin, the agonies of labour, the fantastic indifference of nature. With encyclopedic precision and almost esoteric punctiliousness, Animalia tells the unsettling story of a family of farmers in south-west France from 1898 to World War I, then jumps forward to 1981, the year (perhaps not coincidentally) of Del Amo’s birth.
We begin on a squalid farm, the father prematurely stooped and exhausted, the child, Éléonore, already old, the nameless ‘genetrix’ withered and miserable. When Éléonore is born, after two miscarriages described in gruesome detail, she is laid upon the new mother who lies ‘as still as a gallows’. The body and its physical processes, written with clinical poise, stripped of sensuality and tenderness, seem instruments of anatomical performances: sex is rarely more than perfunctory fornication; birth is parturition; women do not breastfeed but suckle their young. The daily cruelty of life on the farm is normalised to the point of banality: skulls are blithely smashed; still-twitching bodies are flung on the dung heap; a human foetus is left for the pigs.