A mere four months into their marriage, Stuart’s wife Marie ups sticks and leaves him – for another species. Badgers, to be precise. It’s a premise so utterly bizarre that it piques interest straight away, and it’s just bonkers enough to be rooted in real-life experience. With debutant author Rob Palk confessing that the novel was born among the debris of a near-fatal illness and a failed marriage, it likely borrows many emotions and events from the man’s life. Regardless of how faithful the latter are to Palk’s own ordeal, the former are certainly representative of the harrowing aftermath of a break-up which any dumpee will instantly recognise, marriage certificate or no.
The writing is slick and polished, with Palk capable of a highly poetic turn of phrase on a multitude of occasions. However, far from being pretentious or elitist, the novel is incredibly readable and encourages comparisons with the reader’s own experiences. Stuart’s willingness to not only share but sometimes dwell on and revel in his own faults makes him a likeable but flawed protagonist, while all other characters are filtered through the prism of his vision. All in all, it makes for an interesting examination of the human experience, with instincts and emotion heavily foregrounded and the plight of the badger given only a supporting role.
Of course, it wouldn’t do to review this brutally honest depiction of heartbreak without mentioning its humour. The book is marketed as a comic novel and has drawn plaudits from celebrated comedian Mark Watson, and it’s easy to see why. Palk’s elegant writing style is repeatedly punctured by a superb sense of comic timing and incisive observational humour, resulting in many laugh-out-loud moments. However, the overarching depression of the novel leaves the reader more deflated than delighted; finishing the final page is akin to receiving the dreaded news about a beloved family pet (perhaps even a badger). In a novel about divorce and mortality, that’s perhaps apt – but all the wry observations and witty quips in the world don’t mask the pain beneath.