Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts is an absolute delight, and not only for animal lovers. This smart, whimsical novel takes readers not only into a world of “invisible beasts” but into the mind of a charmingly quirky character.
The novel is written in a nonfiction style, as a personal bestiary by a woman with a genetic gift (passed down from her granduncle and occurring again, she learns, in her nephew)—the ability to see invisible animals.
“Why have I written a book that could expose me, and my family, to ridicule and imputations of lunacy?” Sophie asks in her introduction. The answer sets the tone for this wonderful journey: “Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts. If we did, we would think and act differently. Instead of believing ourselves to be above animals, or separate from them, we would understand how every aspect of our lives—spiritual, psychological, social, political—is, also, an aspect of our being animals.”
In addition to an introduction and epilogue, Invisible Beasts is divided into five sections, including Common Invisible Beasts, Imperiled and Extinct Invisible Beasts, and Rare Invisible Beasts—yet while carefully structured and grounded in science, the voice is anything but staid. The novel begins, “A night of passion is a hard thing to remember (no pun intended). The moments blur into a warm blush on your brain, from which it’s hard to extract the details later, if you want to brood over them and confirm just how he did what. So it’s lovely to find a Couch Conch in your bedroom the morning after.”
This first beast we encounter, the Couch Conch, appears in one’s bedroom the morning after and displays, “in the film of pale shell that overlays its radiant pink,” what transpired the night before. “It’s wonderful that mollusks, who don’t care about us, can show us what our bodies express,” writes Sophie. “But mollusks are full of lessons. They know all about the balance of hard and soft, rigidity and acceptance, firmness and flexibility, from the way in which they compose their nacre, the iridescent glaze that makes pearls precious and conches beautiful.”
This mix of magic and science, fantasy and reality, appears throughout, among the many invisible beasts Sophie introduces. The invisible Grand Tour butterflies out-distance the monarchs; in the embryonic stage, “humans, basking sharks, and Beanie Sharks look exactly the same.” And just as it’s wonderful to be visited by a Couch Conch, so it is to be accompanied by Truth Bats (who only show up among non-liars) or an Oormz, which restores memory like “a bandage between your animal past, sadly forgotten, and your present.”
The novel isn’t all animals, however; there are lovely moments between Sophie and her practical, straight-talking biologist sister, Evie—and in one chapter, we witness Sophie’s discovery of her nephew’s gift. A few passages, despite the mythical qualities of the book, are firmly grounded in reality: In the chapter on the Foster Fowl, Sophie wonders to what extent her own selfishness led to its extinction; the chapter “The Riddle of Invisible Dogs” was inspired by the author’s year of volunteering with animal cruelty officers of the Humane Society and is tinged with the sad realities of animal abuse.
Throughout this small, compact book are allegorical gems—Sophie’s sister Evie tells her, “Without imagination, we can’t stop extinction”—and laugh-out-loud observations: the Wild Rubber Jack, we learn, is “an invisible American ass” that stands as tall as a man. “To this day,” Sophie writes, “we lead the world in the enormous size of our asses.”
Invisible Beasts is a wildly inventive novel that invites us to consider, in ways both fun and serious, the depth of our connections with non-human animals, as well as all that they can teach us.
Learn more from this Q&A with author Sharona Muir here.
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.