Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
10:55 AM 25th November 2020

‘Fate Brings People Together No Matter How Far Apart They May Be’: We Are Animals By Tim Ewins

Fate is a concept indelibly ingrained into the human psyche, and one almost as mysterious as it is culturally pervasive. Carl Jung once said, ‘When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate’. Taking a more romantic and less clinically psychological stance on the topic, O. Henry said, ‘The true adventurer goes forth aimless and uncalculatingly to meet and greet unknown fate’. Articulating his typically pragmatic approach, Marcus Aurelius tells us, ‘Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together but do so with all your heart’. Fate, it seems, connects us with others. The nexus between us and others would seem to be a catalyst for reciprocal modification, and a dynamic, if invisible, agency in its own right.

We Are Animals is the delightful debut novel of Tim Ewins and an eccentric, wistful book which deftly places fate at the warm epicentre of its ingeniously contrived and gloriously diverting plot. One of his characters tells us, ‘The people you love and the people you lose; they always come back’. For Ewins, fate is an infinitely patient guide - ineluctable determinism a causative force benevolently inclined to precipitate union, not its antithesis. Chance encounters hold the capacity to change who we are, whilst also acting as beacons of light illuminating the darkness of miasmic ennui.

To pen his imaginative, comical tale, Ewins has perseverated upon where existential agency ends and fatalistic destiny begins. I suspect he has then willingly surrendered to the playful power of his imagination and indulged his innate desire to entertain, rather than pontificate. The result is a gem of a debut brimming with whimsy and tenderness, which dextrously cloaks the quasi-philosophical thematic substructure beneath.

Ewin’s story takes its central protagonist, Jan, fifty-four years to traverse, as he travels through a series of increasingly exotic countries and cultures in search of adventure, and the flighty love of his life. En passant, he chances upon a virtual zoo of animals and an equally diverse panoply of random encounters with the people who inadvertently sculpt his own destiny. These orchestrated meetings and unplanned collisions populate his quixotic life with friendship, joy, heartbreak, spiritual awakening and longing. His path through life is both rocky and rewarding as he ricochets like a billiard ball on route to its chosen pocket.

We begin Jan’s adventures with him as a young boy in 1965, dreaming of adventure but facing life as a ‘box packaging technical specialist‘ in his local fish factory in dreary Fishton, England. Fate, though, has other plans for young Jan. Fate had ‘LadyJan’ in its mind, only she was in Sweden stealing passports and our hapless traveller would not meet her until she stole his. From that chance encounter onwards, the novel charts Jan’s life as a comically construed Homeric odyssey with Jan not in search of Penelope, but re-union with LadyJan as the pair struggle to remain connected.

The events of the book are told by our omniscient, aridly witty author in the third person. A sexagenarian Jan shares his mesmeric tale with Shakey, a facile and adorably naïve teenager, ‘finding himself’ whilst selling tickets to a ‘silent’ beach disco in Palolem, Goa in 2016 - picture the Ancient Mariner and the Wedding Guest, but without the Christian allegory, beard, ranting or albatross. In fact, Jan has become a ‘moustache’. A man set in his ways and no longer searching for the unknown, having placed his faith in fate’s hands. Shakey, conversely, is a ‘vest’. An immature wannabe traveller, myopically in search of a soul expanding exoticism, but in reality, more interested in drinking his body weight in vodka and red bull and finding a girl to admire his biceps. Jan was once a ‘vest’ and the two develop an unlikely relationship, as strained as it is mutually life changing.

As Jan tells Shakey his romantic, if emotionally turbulent, life story, the action flits episodically from one period of Jan’s life to another. We travel with him through time in a series of interlaced vignettes which do not offer us a chronological sequence, but a patchwork quilt telling of his misadventures, emotional vacillations and relentless efforts to share his life with Ladyjan.

Geographically, we find ourselves in Moscow in 1972, Cambodia and Thailand in 2016 and Delhi in 1977, not to mention countless other exotic and less exotic locations. Each recalled episode sheds light upon Jan’s tale and vicariously immerses the reader in the book’s poignant pantomime.

The story always returns to the poles of Goa, India and Fishton, England oscilating between these two causative nodes. Referring to ‘Ladyjan’, ‘ManJan’ tells the gormless, but benign Shakey, ‘We were like magnets, swinging around each other until eventually our gravitational pull brought us to the same spot’. The problem for Jan is that this ‘spot’ seldom materialises and is always transitory.

The structure of the book, like the plot is almost faultless. In addition to handling the complexity of melding together fragments of Jan’s life to form our story, Ewins has a poetic eye for form. Fonts, lists and paragraph lengths are all inventively exploited to ensure the reader never loses interest in the story. Information is decanted via a range of filters with the pages of the book dressed as stages for the tale. I encountered Ewin’s novel in e-book format and this canny use of structural and stylistic vim prevented me from suffering digital word blindness.

Tim Ewins
Tim Ewins
Linguistically, the novel is as boldly inventive as its prose is retrained and suffused with bone-dry wit. Ewins uses language to both share detail and playfully arrest the reader’s attention, as he performs syntactical gymnastics for our delight. Phrasing is short, pun-laden and delightfully clever. Our author shares satirical observation, aphoristic insight and indulges his obvious passion for language’s ability to conjure both ambience and mood.

Ewins repeats key phrases as linguistic echoes of fate’s own rhythms, almost employing his bare, modulated prose in the structural role of poetic metre. The effect is to create the sensation of reading a recalled lucid dream, spliced through with edgy humour, humanistic truths, whilst simultaneously resonating with elegantly distilled leitmotifs.

The human characters in the novel are economically sketched, their emotional truths scaffolding the details of their existence. Again, Ewins explores his central theme of serendipity by adroitly engineering thematically critical rendezvous between his protagonists. In the novel’s surreal world, such meetings are destined to occur irrespective of geographical barriers, and laws of probability or reason. Dialogue is fully exploited to showcase semantic wit, whilst succinctly voicing the essence of each character’s personality and soul. Ewins uses his colourful characters to advertise his novel’s truths, however they are not mere clothes horses. We respond to this story’s participants not as puppets controlled by an unseen author, but as convincingly flawed, always interesting real Human Beings.

Each short chapter of the novel simultaneously presents us with an episode in Jan’s life and luxuriant pen portraits of a specific animal. These descriptive studies focus upon an amusing array of beasts and insects including cows and cockroaches, quails and a recently trawled, discombobulated herring! Our author describes the antics of each creature, then dives into touching renditions of their inner musings. These Kafkaesque diversions playfully weave his thematic material into the lives of both his human and animal protagonists. Animals, like us, are often oblivious to all but their own fate, single-mindedly pursuing their own needs for survival and comfort.

The animals Jan discovers on his journey, serve as metaphorical signposts to the reader, waymarkers helping us to understand nature’s rhythms, truths and fate’s role in shaping our concept of and response to reality. Ewins explores a profound theme, but he does so with the constant imperative to entertain. His chimerical use of assorted animal portraits, whilst didactic, is never less than engaging and always frolicsome. As such, he ensures his reader’s merriment is never compromised by the depth of the novel’s thematic bedrock.

Whilst reading the book, I dimly recalled passages from Deepak Chopra, Jung and even elements of Hans Christian Andersen, the story augmented by liberal pinches of classic Roald Dahl. One voice did suggest itself to me as a seminal influence upon Ewins - that of Jonas Jonasson, the Swedish author of The One Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Jonasson went on to pen The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden and Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All. Familiar with all three books, I did find myself forming a mildly critical observation.

Despite this quirky novel being infused with a modest touch of quasi-autobiographical detail, it does echo the spirit, and to a lesser degree, the style, of Jonasson. Whilst echoes are fine, they should only ever be faint resonances, rather than discernible, distinct or conspicuous melodies. Ewins is simply too good to risk hiding his light under Jonasson’s influential bushel. Neil Gaiman once said, ‘Most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people’. For me, Ewins has certainly not attempted to emulate Jonasson, however, his subconscious admiration for him does occasionally threaten to overshadow his own voice. Writers can of course share similar authorial voices, literary devices and even lexicographical inclinations. Ewins has a wondrous voice of his own and should guard against it occasionally being, albeit subconsciously, alloyed by others.

So, a debut of magical charm, wit and humour as likely to amuse, as stimulate the minds of its readers. We Are Animals engagingly distils surreal entertainment, along with well-crafted insights into the nature of fate and human relationships. I adored reading Ewins’s intriguing book. Encountering his future novels and enjoying them, looks certain to be in this reader’s…destiny!

We are Animals is published by Lightning Books.