By Aryn Kyle. Published in 2007.
The first chapter of The God of Animals initially appeared as an award-winning short story in The Atlantic, and the residue of its earlier incarnation lingers in the pages of the novel. Good short stories distill so much into such little space—every word counts—and The God of Animals, with its tone set by that gorgeous first chapter, has that same kind of bewitching weight.
It’s a coming-of-age novel—not usually my favorite genre, but Kyle’s touch is so deft (and her scope more expansive than the narrow experiences of one child) that the novel drew me in spite of myself. The protagonist is twelve-year-old Alice Winston, the younger daughter of a Colorado horse rancher struggling to make ends meet. Alice’s sister, a prize-winning equestrienne, has eloped, and her severely depressed mother never leaves her bedroom, so Alice alone is available to help her taciturn father with the horses. To bring in some much-needed money during a hard, rainless summer, the Winstons begin boarding horses for rich neighbors, and those women, plus Sheila, an enthusiastic but untalented riding student Alice’s age, change the dynamic of the ranch and throw the Winstons’ financial circumstances into particularly stark relief.
American novels don’t often examine class with the cool, canny eye that The God of Animals does. Kyle shows no interest in idealizing or demonizing her characters based on their relative wealth, but she does put a great deal of thought into what kind of security money can buy—and what kind it can’t. Alice’s relationship with Sheila is particularly well drawn, their would-be friendship strained by imbalance but still there, forever nascent, with claims on both girls.
Alice herself is a captivating protagonist, smart and observant but not unnaturally “wise beyond her years” as fictional children so often are. She can be cruel and foolish—Kyle does not take a nostalgic view of childhood—but her resilience, her essential dignity, makes her enormously compelling. Following her as she loses some of her illusions is painful but never depressing; this isn’t a story about some innocent little victim battered by outside forces but rather a more nuanced tale of a young woman, neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily bad, discovering who she wants to be.
What truly gives the novel its magic, though, is the setting. Kyle paints the Winstons’ horse ranch and the open Colorado plains with exquisite but boldly unsentimental detail. I was never a horse girl (to this day, they sort of frighten me), but Kyle makes me see the poetry in the animals that The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague never could, and she does so rejecting pastel-colored horse-worship entirely. Ranching, as she depicts it, is desperately hard work; there’s nothing romantic and pretty about weaning the foals or breaking a filly or dealing with the aftermath of a fall.
The nonprettiness is often the point: Kyle uses the horses’ ordeals to reflect and illuminate the ordeals of the people around them, but quietly, artfully, never forcing the issue but letting the echoes reverberate where they will. The result is elegiac, sensitive without being soft, delicate without being fragile, each well-chosen word coloring the sublime horizon of Alice’s widening world.