Author makes it hard to look away from impact

Debut novel leads skillfully to family's inevitable crackup
by: , 'The God of Animals' by Aryn Kyle, published by Scriber.

'The God of Animals' is a tense and riveting first novel that keeps you turning pages even when you dread what's looming.

Author Aryn Kyle has a talent for captivating her readers and forcing them to drive headlong into a story of parents behaving badly, of children being forced to deal with adult situations before they're able.

Twelve-year-old Alice Winston lives on a horse ranch with her mother, who is bedridden with a deep depression, and her taciturn father, Joe, who is forever looking for a way to make money.

The dilapidated ranch is in constant need of updating, and family members' regular chores take 14 hours a day.

To make matters worse, Alice's older sister, the magnetic, horse-whispering Nona, has run off with a rodeo cowboy.

This means Alice is left to take up the slack and don a succession of uncomfortable hats: nursemaid to her fragile mother, stable hand to her overworked father, and coach and cheerleader to the spoiled Sheila, who begins taking riding lessons from Joe.

As the family's financial situation becomes more tenuous, Joe opens the ranch to boarders, mostly lonely, rich women with horses they spoil but rarely ride. The contrast between them and the Winstons is both frightening and mesmerizing to Alice.

'The boarders whispered and giggled like children, addressing each other as girls. … Their skin was freckled with deep suntans and they had tiny lines around their eyes and mouths, but their bodies were small and trim, their clothes youthful, their voices light and bubbly.'

Joe Winston becomes involved with one of the boarders.

Alice develops a nocturnal phone relationship with her English teacher.

Nona and her cowboy come slinking back home.

The novel unwinds in careful, melodious writing so that the reader becomes invested in the story, all the while waiting for the inevitable impact as divergent worlds collide.

Like all the great literary teasers, Kyle makes us wait for it. But the delay is an absorbing one, thanks to an engaging plot and characters whose actions are believable and interesting.

The voice of Alice is supremely rendered. As the book moves forward we barely sense her increasing cynicism and despair. When the collision finally occurs, it comes as a surprise to find Alice in the middle of it.

The last chapter of 'The God of Animals' contains some of the book's best writing. Alice notes, 'Childhood is never over, not really … the places we come from don't leave us as easily as we leave them.'

Kyle's debut novel will not easily leave the minds of her readers.

Reading this week

John Sellers' new book, 'Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life,' will strike a chord with many who read the line 'One of the most comfortable places for a teenager who knows deep down that he has zero chance to make meaningful contact with the girl of his dreams is alone at the wheel of a car, with his favorite music turned up loud.' Pop-culture journalist Sellers will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

In writing his new book, 'The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring,' author Richard Preston mastered the sport of tree-climbing. He also came away with a respect for the coast redwood trees of Northern California and the amateur naturalists who seek to preserve them. Preston appears 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 23, at Powell's City of Books.

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