Book #63

The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

Twelve-year-old Alice Winston is growing up fast on her father's run-down horse ranch--coping with the death of a classmate and the absence of her older sister (who ran off with a rodeo cowboy), trying to understand her depressed and bedridden mother, and attempting to earn the love and admiration of her reticent, weary father.

I can’t remember when or where I picked this one up, but I believe it’s been on my bookshelf for around ten years, and I’ve been avoiding it. If I’m honest, the grounds for this was the horse on the cover - I thought it would be a tale of a horse girl riding horses and doing some female Tom Sawyer stuff. When I finally opened the book and read the first line - Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. - I knew I had, once again, allowed myself to be duped by a book cover.

And yes, okay, there’s a horse girl riding horses, but this is a truly remarkable coming of age story. It delicately explores the bridge between childhood and womanhood; the confusion, the questions, the idea that everyone else knows more than you. And although that’s partly true for all of us, at most stages in life, Kyle allows us to witness how our protagonist, Alice, sees it, and how she soon comes to realise that life is full of secrets, of realisations, and of painful disenchantments.

There are so many wonderful comments on life, on friendship, on family, on what it means to do everything we’re expected to do. Leave high school, go to university, get married, have kids, enjoy your happy ever after. Kyle shows us the breakdown of this dream wonderfully, and raises important questions on societal presumptions and the perfect family life.

Her characters are quite simply gorgeous in their complexity. Each of them with a number of layers, a multitude of flaws, Alice begins her story with certain ideas of who each of these people are, and by the end comes to recognise their humanity and their struggles. Those she dotes on and idolises are brought down to human level as well as those she scorns being raised in her estimations. It’s a very good depiction of Alice beginning to mature and understand the world through the eyes of a woman.

Towards the end, Kyle did seem to run out of steam slightly, and things weren’t wrapped up as nicely as I’d like, but as the journey to get there was so rich with life, I can forgive this. A wonderful debut, poignant and harsh, bleak and hopeful. You don’t need to be a horse lover to enjoy the story, but I imagine it would help.

“This is the truth about things: If you take something that isn't yours, it will never belong to you. You can try to hold on to it, but somehow, it will slip through your fingers. If something wasn't meant to be yours, it won't be. No matter what you do to keep it, you will lose it.”