A Review of Taylor Brown’s “Pride of Eden”
King of Southern Gothic
On August 8, 2019, my best friend passed away. She was only a cat, but we had been through thick and thin for 13 years, so when Dot died, it felt like my heart had stopped. I still, sometimes, think I can hear her meowing and can also see her from time to time out of the corner of my eye. But this review has little to do with my pet’s death, aside from mentioning that author Taylor Brown mines the loss of a beloved pet as fodder for his latest novel, Pride of Eden. The only difference is that Brown writes about the death of a much, much, much bigger cat. The book basically asks the question, “What do you do when your pet — or, at least, an animal in your care — dies, and what do you do when that pet turns out to be a lion?”
The story follows one Anse Caulfield, a fifty-something man living in South Carolina who happens to be a Vietnam vet and a retired racehorse jockey. He owns a wildlife reserve called Little Eden that is home to all sorts of exotic animals. The pride of the enclosure is a lioness named Henrietta. One day, Henrietta escapes and is, in the attempt to re-capture her, shot dead when the lion seems to be about to attack Anse. At roughly the same time, a young Filipino woman named Malaya, who is also a former soldier and an ex-member of an animal anti-poaching unit in South Africa, shows up at Little Eden and takes a job. One of her job duties involves rescuing exotic and abused animals around the American South from hideous fates. This includes a lion who is caged at a local truck stop who becomes something of a replacement for the lion that Anse has lost. Complications ensue.
Pride of Eden is an interesting book in that it’s clearly literary fiction (of the Southern Gothic genre) but comes with all sorts of action and adventure that you wouldn’t expect to find in a novel such as this. That’s why it’s a little surprising that the book seems to lag in its middle half, and careens towards a rushed and anti-climatic ending that will leave readers wondering, “What happens next?” That’s not to say that you should skip over this volume. If you love animals, and have an interest in ecology, you will probably pick up something from this work. And, of course, if you’re a fan of gunplay — though nobody but the animals really seem to suffer from it — you might like Pride of Eden as well.
What makes the book compelling is that, for any book that could be classified as an action-adventure tale such as this, the language is stirringly poetic. Taylor takes his time to remind readers that we’re dealing with the kings and queens of the jungle here (okay, so lions don’t live in the jungle, as Taylor points out in his work) who have raw power and a celestial energy to them. To some degree, it makes of a potent read — but there’s a “but” coming. After a while, the rich prose begins to become a little on the repetitive side, and there was a part of me who was wondering why we get paragraph after paragraph from the perspective of a lion who only wants to kill unless it was to pad the page count to an almost 300-page book. To be honest, a little pruning of the claws of this book — the language — could have gone a long way to maintaining a reader’s interest.
However, because this book plays with the time-space continuum, my biggest criticism is that sometimes the narrative gets a bit confusing. For instance, towards the end of the book, I thought the main characters had broken into the main bad guy’s house to rescue some animals, but it turns out (maybe, because I’m still not so sure) that it was a different baddie. Because things don’t always happen in a clear and logical order — which is not a bad thing, per se, when handled well — readers might trip up over details, especially if they’ve put the book down for a day or two.
Still, for all my complaints, Pride of Eden is a stirring read. I liked that this was a work of literary fiction that wasn’t afraid to bring out the literal big guns during crises. Taylor also convincingly presents a world that is on the teeter of collapse, of an America that is really going to the dogs. He canvasses empty, derelict buildings and ocean-eroded shores, adding a good coating of grime to the realism of this novel. Even though this is a novel with faults, it is still a fun read — especially coming from the literary end where things may be a tad cardboard-like at times in that genre. So putting “fun” and “literary” together is a magical feeling. This is an enchanting page-turner, warts be damned.
In the end, whether you should read Pride of Eden is going to come down to how much you like your fiction to be a tad bit on the transgressive side. This is a white-knuckled read, full of masculine grit (even from the female characters because Malaya is a bit of a badass) and a raw level of detail of a world gone wrong or mad. Taylor is a master of words, no doubt about that, and, in this world of climate change and those who would deny it, a staunch supporter of animal rights and protections. Both of those things are admirable, making Pride of Eden glorious — especially for those of us who love animals, and especially the ones we have lost some time ago. This book is modestly recommended for that reason. I’m sure Dot would have loved having had it read to her.
Taylor Brown’s Pride of Eden will be published by St. Martin’s Press on March 17, 2020.
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You may also be interested in the following review: Taylor Brown’s Gods of Howl Mountain.
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