With the sure hand of a seasoned writer, Aryn Kyle has crafted a brilliant debut with her novel, The God of Animals
. Alice Winston, living on the family horse ranch, a marginal enterprise in Desert Valley, Colorado, is a 12-year-old girl with more than she can handle and no one to help her cope. Polly, a classmate of hers, drowned in the nearby canal and was carried out by Alice's father, Joe, a member of the volunteer posse. Her older sister, 16-year-old Nona, eloped with a rodeo cowboy. Her mother never leaves her bedroom, a case of clinical depression. "My mother had spent nearly my whole life in her bedroom... Nona said that one day, while I was still a baby, our mother had handed me to her, said she was tired, and gone upstairs to rest. She never came back down."
Joe has little time for Alice, other than counting on her to muck out the stalls and be polite to the paying customers. He doesn't even notice that she has outgrown her clothes. What Kyle does with this scenario is never predictable or clichÃ©d. She writes beautifully of landscapes, interior and exterior, ravaged by extremes: the hottest summer in years, followed by a deluge; a lonely, isolated girl reaching out to a teacher, Mr. Delmar, equally alienated.
Alice starts telling lies, weaving bits and pieces of other people's lives into the tales she tells the teacher. What we eventually find out about her family is more poignant and tragic than anything she can make up. Horse lore is a large part of what explains each of the people in the novel: separating mares from their foals, the way a stud is treated, breaking a horse, ordinary everyday contact. This bond is explored in depth and each person: Alice, Nona, Joe, Joe's father, Alice's mother, is affected by this closeness in a different, unique way, revelatory of each individual's character. Much more than a coming-of-age tale, Kyle told a story of compromises and dreams that will never come true. --Valerie Ryan
10 Second Interview: A Few Words with Aryn Kyle Q:
In 2004, your short story "Foaling Season," the first chapter of The God of Animals
, won a National Magazine Award for Fiction for The Atlantic Monthly
. Did you have the idea for your book at the time you wrote the short story, or did the novel develop over time? A:
Three years passed between the time that I finished the short story and the time I returned to expand it into a novel. I was always interested in the characters and in the town which the story takes place, but after the story was published, I assumed I was done with them. In the aftermath of graduate school and a failed attempt at another novel, I found myself living back in my hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado, the town that Desert Valley is loosely based upon. More and more, I caught myself thinking about Alice again. I was interested in how the town had changed over the years, in the way that a tide of money and commercial culture was displacing the old families and the old ways. But mostly, I was interested in Alice's family, and in Alice's struggle to make a place for herself in a world that seems to have no place for her. The short story ended before she could really make any headway. I became curious as to where she might go and who she might become if the events of the story continued into the wider space of a novel. The story of The God of Animals
starts with Chapter One, but I've always felt that the novel really starts with the second chapter. Q:
How much of your adolescence and personal experience are incorporated into your novel? Like Alice, did you ride horses growing up in Colorado? A:
Lots? None? This is a tricky question to answer. As far as lifestyle and experience, my own adolescence could not have been more different from Alice's. I didn't grow up on a ranch; didn't have a sister; my mother got out of bed and went to work every day. But adolescence is adolescence. Like Alice, I certainly know about loneliness, about longing, about regret, and about the confusion of trying to live in the world without really understanding it. Though, if I were going to be perfectly honest, I would have to admit that these are all things I found myself working through in my twenties, rather than in my teens. I did take riding lessons when I was about Alice's age, and I competed in a few local horse shows. It was such a different world from the one I'd grown up in, and though I gave it up when I started high school, I guess it made a pretty big impression on me. Q:
How did you think of the title? A:
The title didn't come to me until I'd finished the book. I was starting to panic a bit, figuring that no one would be too interested in publishing a book called Novel, which is what I'd named the file on my computer. So I did the only thing I could think of--I frantically thumbed through the pages of the draft waiting for something to pop out at me. I reread the scene between Alice and Mr. Delmar where they discuss God and spirituality. Something about that scene seemed to encapsulate some of the greater themes of the novel, the uncertainty Alice has about the world, her desire to believe in something larger than herself, her fears regarding isolation and loneliness. Q:
Do you have another novel in the works? A:
Lately, I've been working mainly on short stories. It's kind of hard for me to spend so much time working on one project, then dive into another. I've needed the time to get Alice's voice out of my head before I commit to another novel. But I do have a second novel underway--I'm superstitious, though, and it seems like bad luck to talk about something while its still in the works. Mostly, my writing starts with the characters, with understanding their flaws and their desires. Plot, for me, seems to come later, after I know what my characters want, and what they're willing to sacrifice to get it.
Aryn Kyle's Favorite Coming-of-Age Novels
See all 10 of Aryn Kyle's favorite coming-of-age novels (with commentary)