Friday, July 6, 2007
The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle, a review
The God of Animals: A Novel is Aryn Kyle’s debut novel, and it is set in the Colorado desert where she spent much of her childhood. The first chapter, Foaling Season, was presented as a short story in the Atlantic Monthly, before the book was published.
The novel is narrated by 12-year-old Alice Winston, daughter of a depressive mother who can’t get out of bed, and a father scrambling to make ends meet on their horse ranch. After Alice’s sister Nona elopes with a rodeo cowboy, and a classmate of Alice’s is found drowned in a nearby canal, Alice’s life couldn’t look any bleaker. But though it never gets any less complicated, life does go on for Alice, and she learns hard lessons about love, friendships, and the burdens of adult life.
Kyle really captures the loneliness and confusion of coming of age in a world that doesn’t seem to care about you. Her portrait of Alice is one of the best things about this novel. Alice is surrounded by flawed people who may care about her, but are so caught up in their own crises that they can’t care for her. She’s tough, made of the same stuff as her father, but she isn’t mature enough to deal with many of the situations thrust upon her, and, nearly unsupervised, it’s no surprise she seeks attention in inappropriate ways. But she survives, a wiser and more mature person by the end of the story.
Kyle’s descriptions of the western landscape are evocative, and the novel has a great “sense of place” (something we’ve been discussing at the Southern Reading Challenge at Maggie Reads, but obviously also applies to many Western books, too, including this one). I was intrigued and sometimes disgusted by the unvarnished details Kyle provides of horse breeding and ranch life, which can be violent and painful. It’s a world I know next to nothing about, and it was very interesting to read about. I especially liked how Kyle juxtaposed the hard-nosed business side of the ranching world with the rose-colored glasses of horse-lovers who only visit their horses on weekends at these horse ranches.
SPOILER ALERT—don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to know how the book turns out! There were a few things Kyle left unexplored; questions she left unanswered, that bothered me some. I don’t need everything neatly wrapped up, and maybe that was the author’s point—life isn’t like that--but it was almost like Kyle started some plot threads that she didn’t know what to do with. First of all, the murder of Alice’s classmate is never solved. And secondly, the story of the friendship that Alice strikes up with her teacher, a man who had a suspect relationship with the dead girl, doesn’t really go anywhere. I won’t be a big spoiler here, but I will say that there is a vaguely menacing feel to this subplot at the beginning of the story that never really pans out.
One of the big criticisms I kept seeing when I read about this book is that it is unrelentingly depressing. This is true. There are few hopeful events in this book, and when you look at the litany of tragedies that befall the characters in the book, it’s a little unbelievable. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but agree with some other critics that it is not for the faint of heart.