New York: Scribner, 2007. 305 pages, $25/$14
Reviewed by Andrea Clark Mason
Washington State University
Aryn Kyle’s debut novel, The God of Animals, is a rarity: a first novel that doesn’t read like one. Kyle takes us into a small community, Desert Valley, Colorado, where class and cultural tensions are high. Twelve-year-old Alice Winston suffers from pre-adolescence and the weight of the death of a classmate. The absence of her sister, Nona, who left town to marry a rodeo rider, and her mother’s twelve-year disappearance into the bedroom under the guise of “being tired” only exacerbate Alice’s struggle with pre-adolescence, which she alleviates through long, secret phone conversations with her English teacher. Although the reader can’t help but wonder how Alice has coped when her mother has been in bed for nearly all of Alice’s life, something changes when her father decides to take on a riding student to replace Alice’s sister, formerly the best rider in town. The new student, Sheila, is from a world Alice doesn’t know or understand: Sheila’s mother has a new SUV, her father is a professor, and they have a new, spacious house on the other side of town. Sheila’s mother buys her daughter Nona’s old horse, and Alice can’t help hoping that Sheila’s skills as an equestrian will never live up to Nona’s.
Between mucking out the stalls, eating burgers with her father, and trying to fit into clothes she has outgrown long ago, Alice begins to understand that her sister’s departure, her classmate’s death, and her father’s make-do attitude are all more complicated than they seem. As the air conditioner breaks in one of the hottest summers on record, the competing barn is more successful at attracting riders who win ribbons, and the horse Alice’s father has bought won’t be broken, Winston stables begins accepting boarders, rich women from the other side of town: “ ‘Compromise,’ he told me. ‘That’s what business is all about. Sometimes you’ve gotta eat shit’” (38). Alice watches her father’s life and her own become entwined with the women whose shiny hair, suede jackets, and pointy shoes simultaneously attract and repel both Alice and her father. The boarders’ horses prefer sawdust to straw and mineral water to hose water. Somewhere in the midst of Alice’s family’s transformation and her own, Alice begins to understand her place in a world where the lives of horses, humans, past and present all connect.
Kyle’s attention to character development and plotting are to be envied, but what she has added to Western American literature is a portrayal of contemporary culture in many small, Western towns. She has depicted both the horse ranch that has been around for generations and the newcomers with their unrealistic expectations about the West and its people. Kyle has also successfully captured the darker side of the West: a family with its share of economic and emotional woes, what beautiful but harsh landscape, reticence, and hard work can do to a person, and how living with animals and people and treating them both fairly is sometimes more difficult than it might seem.
Originally appeared in Western American Literature