I have been reading the God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle, and although I am very close to being done, I am ready to review it for you. After buying this book during grad school as one of my “fun” books for when I had spare time to read more fiction, it has been moved around the country, and has been sitting on my shelf for many months now, without more than a second thought.
I was intrigued by both the title and the cover, since the animal shape in relief with another layer under the title page in a contrasting color reminded me a little bit of Mark Haddon’s the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime, one of my all time favorite novels.
Honestly, I loved this book while I was reading it, but I had to take a break. I stopped reading it because this is one powerful book. Don’t let the childlike horse on the cover fool you- Aryn Kyle attempts to reverse any happy associations you might have had with horses, horse-rearing, ranch life, or romantic notions of what it is like to grow up in a ranching community.
Instead of a horse story, what we get as readers is a claustrophobic “coming of age” story that is filled with anxiety, discomfort, and people who have no understanding of emotional and psychological boundaries. I didn’t sleep for an entire night after reading the majority of it- there are some very disturbing elements of the novel, and things that you read that you can’t really “un see.”
The brutality and matter of fact negativity that Alice witnesses on a daily basis really seems to make her a pragmatist early on in life, but in the worst of ways. She has glimmers of hope throughout the text in the goodness of humanity, but she usually does not have her even low expectations met. She has a very unstable home life, and although she wants acceptance from her father, she fears her mother, and does not receive affection from either of her parents.
I think the writing is pretty incredible, and this is Kyle’s first published novel. Her characters are complex, and she does not shy away from real family issues. I cannot tell you too much about the plot, because there are some shockers, but the story begins with the protagonist telling us about a girl at school who drowned in the ravine walking home from school. We also soon find out that she lives with her parents on a horse ranch, her “do nothing wrong” award-winning sister has recently abandoned the family to marry a cowboy, and her mother has severe depression and potentially agoraphobia- she is also sometimes psychologically manipulative to her child and husband, and lives in her own land of self pity and misery.
Alice’s overarching motive as a character is a never-ending search for love she has never known. The way readers are privy to her thoughts about social interaction is a fascinating and really well-done aspect of the piece. She describes people in a distant and almost chilly way, and does not seem to understand what compassion or empathy feel like. Although there are moments when readers are encouraged to understand Alice as pitiable, since she truly does not understand love, on a certain level she is also an unreliable narrator and has some sociopathic tendencies to detach. This creates a really interesting, but very uncomfortable reader position throughout the novel.
For example, early on in the novel she is wondering what it would be like to attend a funeral, but from a very ego-centric standpoint. She attempts to present herself as a friend of the deceased various times throughout the book, even lying at times about her actions and relationship to her dead classmate, and desires attention and potentially even affection as a result of her classmate’s death. However, it is constantly often Alice’s experience in this novel that only the wealthy, and kids without the same depth of familial problems seem to have the luxury of grief, love, and a chance to make friends.
Alice’s detached narration often seems to come as the result of seeing the hopes and dreams of those around her fail, and although she is hard on herself, her parents put a large amount of responsibility and knowledge on her shoulders.
To find out more about the book, you will have to read it yourself, because I can’t give much more away without giving away too much.
I am giving this book 4-5 stars. I would recommend this book but with caution. If you are looking for a piece of really interesting fiction exploring family issues, then you should check it out. However, be warned that you will be put in an uncomfortable place as a reader, and that this is one of those books that is very difficult to put down once you get started, so give yourself some time to finish it if you plan to start.
Also know that this is the type of book that will stick with you for a while, and not necessarily in a happy way. I really appreciate that this novel addresses some serious issues in a unique and hard way, and that there is really nothing friendly about it. It is obvious that Aryn Kyle’s first novel is a brave one.
Read with some sort of cheap beer, like PBR or Rainier, but probably not with food- it’s not really the type of book you want to eat while reading.