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book review

In The Death of Small Creatures, a memoir by the Canadian poet Trisha Cull, the author has two pet rabbits named Marcello and Caravaggio. Through her struggles – with drug and alcohol addiction, bipolar disorder, bulimia, depression and self-mutilation, along with multiple misguided romances – these silent, cotton-tailed confidants are a near constant. She can't bring herself to cage them (despite the "endless trail of piss and shit"). Instead, they live in the bunny room ("[her] toxic sanctuary"), which is where the author goes to escape reality and get very, very high. Following one particularly hard core NeoCitran binge, she wakes up with her face stuck to the carpet, kibble crusted into her hair.

Her husband Leigh begs her to get rid of the rabbits – he is allergic and suffering greatly, and eventually tells her, "It's the rabbits or me," precipitating the end of their marriage. During an involuntary hospitalization, Cull worries more about whether Caravaggio's teeth will "yellow and pierce the roof of his mouth," than she does about her future. She weeps because she misses her beloved pets, later describing them as "the centre of [her] universe," and fearing that she "might die without them."

So are these rabbits real or a fuzzy manifestation of addiction? It's a question I started pondering early on, but even having finished the book, it's not one I can answer. Clarity, it's safe to assume, ranks low on the author's list of objectives. Instead, Cull shares her story of mental illness direct from the belly of the beast, using a mix of flashbacks, letters, diary entries and (eventually) clinical evaluations from her therapist. The result is horrifying, hard to read – often poetic, but just as often confusing. "My sense of time is warped," she writes, explaining how the drugs "foster discrepancies in time and space, the continuum in general." As her reader, you know the feeling.

Reproducing the delirium of the drug-addled mind has preoccupied artists over time. The idea is not to meet an audience at their level, but instead to drag us down into the insanity. This, Cull – who wrote prize-winning poetry in-between hospitalizations – does expertly, allowing the reader to feel both her own sense of despair and also how maddening her behaviour must be for the people in her life.

Cull's narrative anchors itself around three key relationships – a loveless marriage to a much older man (Leigh), a one-sided infatuation with her therapist (Dr. P) and what begins as an online flirtation with a married American (Richard). None of these supporting characters get developed beyond bare-bones sketches – we never understand the story from their point of view or understand what motivates them to stand by such an unsympathetic central figure, herself a bit of an enigma.

It's unusual to spend 200-plus pages inside another person's brain and to still think of that person as a stranger. This is probably because, unlike a lot of addiction memoirs, the author isn't reflecting on her experience. There is no cozy hindsight, just the raw and repetitive monotony of self-destruction. As a dependent to her disease, Cull is narcissistic, destructive, annoying, unreliable, ungrateful and sometimes kind of boring: a narrator that only an (imaginary?) bunny could love.

Courtney Shea is a Toronto journalist.