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Alice finds a Western wonderland

With chaos all around, this 12-year-old battles real problems.

Published April 22, 2007


Asked what he believed in, Edward Abbey once replied, "Blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos and broom-tailed horses." This flinty first novel contains all of these elements (okay, no flutes or banjos), but it's heavy on the horses: spotted mares and aging thoroughbreds, a new foal or two and bowlegged killers, which, the novel's 12-year-old narrator Alice Winston explains, were "good for nothing but rendering plants and schoolroom glue."

This is typical of Alice, who over the course of The God of Animals tries mightily to grow into her cynicism. It's hard to begrudge her; her mother languishes with depression, her sister has run away with a cowboy, and, as the story begins, a classmate turns up dead in a storm drain. Alice's father, a rancher turned riding trainer, is the one who finds her. "You stay away from that canal when walking home, Alice," he says.

Alice's father may know horses, but he's hopeless with girls. So off we are to the races: Alice flirting with danger, then stepping back, two-stepping toward sexual experience.

Like Annie Proulx and others before her, Aryn Kyle brilliantly reveals a vibrant female world pulsing at the heart of the protomasculine ranch life. Girls come for lessons and become women; women sit on the sidelines coaching their daughters and casting glances at Alice's father. Many novels are published now about adolescents, but writing about them is actually quite difficult. They affect knowingness yet know little; they are loyal to a point, and then quick to betray their upbringing. Kyle understands all this and has a beautiful grasp of Alice's voice.

Kyle grew up in Colorado, where the novel is set, and writes beautifully about the stark landscape. There are rough patches, but by the end, she has this story under control. Alice's father could be describing this book when he yells: "She was smooth . . . Even when she was jumping and thrashing around, it was like riding water."

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

The God of Animals

By Aryn Kyle

Scribner, 305 pages, $25

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 12:46:40]

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