Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong

The story opens with a dead seal tossed up on the rocks and Frank, the man from the council, out with his van to clean it up. Summer visitors do not want to see or smell it, so it is wrapped up and transported to the incinerator where it is disposed of. So tidy, neat and clean. Frank even sprays disinfectant on the ground where the seal lay to dissuade flies and other creatures from being drawn to the area.

This, then, is in strange opposition to the next body found on the beach, that of a man propped up against the rocks, fully dressed but not wet, no labels on his clothing, carrying nothing and with no one. It isn’t clear why he died, how he got there or who he is. Rather than this being a neatly tidied up body to dispose of, like a whirlpool it sucks in just about everybody in the nearby coastal village who all have witnessed something. There is the homeless man who takes the purple rucksack that had belonged to the dead man which was left in the rubbish bin, the priest at the Sea Mission in Australia who recognises him from his tattoos, the local lad who saw him get off the bus and walk to the beach. They are all in there with their separate stories entitled the collector, the driver, the firestarter, the barman and many more. Each character is provided with their own backstory and chapter in the first section which plays straight into Armstrong’s short story writing.

The stories merge, complete and circle round to find each other again. How did the hull of the ship come to be lying on the sand, exposed and rusted away as the tide goes out? What was in the hold with the anchor? (I still don’t know the answser to that question.)And, who was this man who died sitting looking out at it?

After a year of false starts in trying to discover who this man was, a ceremony is held for a new plaque and to remember all of those who died at sea, including the unknown.

For those fallen at sea

And those still falling


There is a sense of coming home in the book. The village made up of disparate group of people, some born and bred and others from all over the world, washed up, some wearied but all drawn by the pull of the place and a need.

The writing is concise but lyrical – it needs to be to get all of the characters in with their backstories and only use 226 pages. Almost every sentence that I went back to read had something special in it and went straight to the heart of the situation rather than skirting around it. It is very good.

I was put off this book by the title – I don’t really like stories about animals – and this isn’t, or it is but only about the human animal and I am taxed by the continuousness of ‘falling’ as if we are all on our way to looking for ‘home’. Is that what it means? I must admit to not really understanding it but that has never got in the way of enjoyment. And, I did enjoy this book despite its title.

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