The subtle, sublime life of an amateur entomologist, in tiny glimpses.
Leah Hager Cohen (No Book but the World) selected Brian Kiteley’s first novel, Still Life with Insects (originally published in 1989), for reprinting by Pharos Editions. In her introduction, Cohen gracefully outlines the strengths of this slim, quietly powerful book.
Elwyn Farmer is an amateur entomologist, forever wandering off to peer under dry leaves or dig in riverbanks. Still Life with Insects consists of his journal entries, spanning 40 years: from 1945, when his 43rd birthday has just been celebrated, to 1985, when his vision begins to fade. The entries record his quiet rejoicing in the ephemeral glory of the natural world, the beetles he collects and, through and around them, the details of his fragile life. Following several nervous breakdowns, he tells stories in which grandchildren and tragic death figure at an equal level with the Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus marginatus), or the Asian Stink Bug his family encounters in a Hungarian resort.
Although a bug collector’s field notes may not sound like an imaginative or exhilarating backdrop, Brian Kiteley’s distinctive style plays well to such a challenge. His greatest accomplishment is understatement. In a mere 103 pages, a sensitive, complex man becomes a brittle old man, fully experiencing the passing of time and life. The stories that fill these journal entries, sparse and widely spaced over decades, are necessarily mere vignettes, bare sketches. Still Life with Insects is a deceptively simple story, characterized by restraint, but with many layers of allegory available to the close reader.
This review originally ran in the May 19, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!