There are some books that just surprise you. I’m finding more and more that this happens with the novice author and their first novel; when I finish the book, close its pages and stroke the spine, I wonder how the author can possibly top it. Zadie Smith left me with that feeling - as did Jonathan Safran Foer and Arundhati Roy. When I read a book by a first-time novelist and am so wowed, that novel and author immediately find a secure place in my heart and on my shelf. I recently added The God of Animals to my stack of loves.
Published in 2007, this first novel by Aryn Kyle touched me in a way I haven’t been touched in a quite a while. Something in her words struck a chord so deep in me that days later, I’m still reeling. I know that’s crazy talk for most of you, but for the select few true booksluts out there, you know it’s a feeling we crave with every book we open. This book made me cry. Hot tears dripped from my cheeks to the pages as Kyle broke my heart with brutal honesty and beautiful prose. This book’s haunting qualities will linger with me very many a year, impossible to forget.
Kyle’s leading lady is twelve-year-old Alice Winston. A book reviewer called her a cousin to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. I would support that connection. I also found myself thinking of Vada from My Girl. All three works are typical bildungsromans, following the maturation of a girl into a young woman. The life lessons Alice, Scout, and Vada learn about love and loss forever change their worlds and the reader/viewer witnesses a transition so relatable, they feel as if they’re suffering with them.
Alice Winston and her family live on a horse farm in Desert Valley, Colorado. Her mother is “sick” and a shut-in. (There’s a paper begging to be written about the comparisons to be drawn between the women and the horses.) Her father is a salt-of-the-earth sort, struggling to make-ends meet while still dreaming of bigger and better. Nona, her sister, the beautiful golden child, has run away to marry a rodeo star. The family is broken.
The novel opens with “Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy.” Polly was Alice’s classmate and Alice fabricates a friendship between herself and the dead girl. She carries this lie with her throughout the novel, garnering sympathy and creating a relationship with the advanced English teacher Polly had crushed on. She convinces herself they were brought together by Polly and that they are in love. It’s her first crush and Kyle fosters the relationship almost to the point of making the reader uncomfortable.
The horse farm setting is one I am unfamiliar with. I know nothing of showing, breeding, or boarding horses. But I’ll be damned if Kyle didn’t have me mucking those stalls with Alice. The world she creates is captivating. She does not romanticize it; the life is hard and brutal on the Winstons and Kyle doesn’t shy away from the dirty side of the horse world. Alice’s father buys a horse at an auction, a beautiful mare of racing stock. She is wild, untamed. Her name is Darling. He attempts to break her and fails at every turn. Alice’s grandfather insists they breed her, claiming that forcing her to stand pregnant in the hot desert heat will take all the fight out of her. When they take her to be bred, Alice watches. She grew up on the farm and breeding was just a way of life. They hobble the horse’s feet so she won’t kick. When the stud mounts her, she goes crazy, breaking the hobble and bruising the stud’s “muscle.”
“And I wondered, now that it was all over, if he had watched Darling as closely as I had. I wondered if he had seen the same look in her face when the stud climbed on top of her, if he understood what happened with the clear, centered certainty that I did: she never would have kicked if they hadn’t tied her legs” (144).
They eventually break Darling, and how she is broken effectively broke my heart.
I won’t ruin this novel for you because I want you to read it. I want you to love it. I want Aryn Kyle to find a spot in your heart and on your shelf; if she keeps writing like this, I may have found my new favorite American author.