Book Review: Amanda Niehaus’ The Breeding Season is an impressive debut about sex, death and darkness

It is not often that we see science threaded into popular fiction plots. Even less common is to have this domain accompanied with an exploration of art. But that’s what we find in Dr. Amanda Niehaus’ debut novel, The Breeding Season, and it’s like a breath of fresh air.

Niehaus is a scientist by trade. She leans on this background in the creation of one of her main protagonists. Elise is a married woman who has had a stillborn baby named William. Her response to this grief is to throw herself into academic fieldwork with a true passion.

We also get the perspective of Elsie’s husband, Dan. He too is grappling with the loss of their child but is dealing with this event in a different way. The pair have a real chasm between themselves, which they find hard to cross. Niehaus does a stellar job of showing how this couple deal with their losses differently.

Dan is a writer and has been tasked with ghost-writing the memoirs of his uncle, a renowned artist. Dan interviews his uncle’s muse, a woman who was very young when she was the subject of these works. This fact offers up some rather provocative material. There are also unresolved issues bubbling away as they reveal themselves over time.

Niehaus’s writing errs towards the very dark and abstract and takes some time to get into. Set in Queensland, the novel offers up a sense of an unforgiving landscape that shines through the prose. This also offers up a stark contrast to the turmoil the characters are experiencing psychologically. Talk about a lot of metaphors!

Along with themes of grief, science and art, Niehaus also describes sex in different ways. The main characters engaging in some graphic acts, whilst Niehaus also uses her novel to examine gender roles, both in humans and in the small marsupials that Elsie studies. At times this offers up interesting ideas about the male gaze as well as others that may not have been considered in much detail before.

The Breeding Season is a rather complex novel, which is somewhat surprising for a debut. Niehaus has proven that she can capture the essence of mortality and bodily experiences in her prose. This is ultimately a gothic and visceral look at matters of life, death and some sensitive moments in between.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Amanda Neihaus’ The Breeding Season is available now through Allen & Unwin.

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