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The Animals: A Novel Hardcover – March 23, 2015
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"Children of Blood and Bone"
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015: Bill Reed runs an animal sanctuary in northern Idaho. He keeps to himself mostly, dating the local veterinarian and caring for the animals who have come to the refuge over the past twenty five years. But his past is catching up to him. His old friend Rick has been released from prison, and Rick has an axe to grind. Moving gracefully between different periods in Bill’s life, author Christian Kiefer weaves a trenchant, profound literary novel that practically wills people to care about its characters. One of those characters is Majer, a blind grizzly bear and longtime denizen of the sanctuary. As Reed’s past closes in on him, and the sanctuary becomes something wholly different, Majer too will play a part. The Animals is a novel of action and emotion, style and substance, and I am looking forward to whatever Kiefer produces next. – Chris Schluep
“Eloquent and shattering, this novel explores, in gritty detail, how penance sometimes does not lead to redemption, a modern take on the story of Eden. Kiefer is a master wordsmith, and his dense and beautiful language intensifies the pain and isolation of the main character… Devastatingly beautiful. This novel embodies why we write and why we read.”
- Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“A rare young stylist, with an abundance of vivid, engrossing stories in his brain; Christian Kiefer is a genuine find.”
- Richard Ford
“A mesmerizing literary thriller… there’s a thrilling story line that builds in momentum to an inevitable denouement, paced by prose that’s poetic without ever succumbing to preciousness. This is a compelling, thoughtful novel.”
- Publishers Weekly
“[The Animals] build[s] to a violent, illuminating climax. Amid the wild backdrop of a blizzard-wracked Idaho winter, Kiefer weaves loyalty, self-destruction, and survival into a story that’s equal doses of raging suspense and thought-provoking gray areas. A great choice for mystery and literary-fiction book groups.”
- Christine Tran, Booklist
“Stretched out on a sun-warmed rock on the most beautiful river I know, on one of the last warm days high in the Sierras, a beer cooling in the water, a galley of Christian Kiefer’s The Animals in my hands six months before the book hits the shelves, no one around to hear me over the roaring water: my exclamations of awe and jealousy at each moment of masterful craftsmanship those pages contain.”
- Josh Weil, Barnes & Noble Review
“In The Animals, Christian Kiefer has created an unusual and compelling amalgam of noir classic―a man’s past comes back to haunt him―and the lyrical extended metaphor in the form of the North Idaho Animal Rescue, where his main character finds refuge and purpose. This tough-minded thriller weaves a hot red thread through an introspective, sensuous landscape, a meditation on instinct, memory and the nature of friendship between species and between men.”
- Janet Fitch, author of Paint it Black and White Oleander
“Kiefer… is a gifted stylist unafraid of writing on the edge of sentiment…. Beautifully written… The Animals moves at a heart-quickening pace, and the counterpointed stories frequently intersect and gather a fierce momentum… The book is not just a galloping great read; it’s a violent, tender, terrifying, genuine work of art.”
- Porter Shreve, San Francisco Chronicle
“Don’t let The Animals get past you…. It’s a haunting, darkly exquisite piece of rural noir that will chill you from its somewhat sedate beginning to its apocalyptic-like ending…. I couldn’t read the novel fast enough, yet there were passages that I made myself read over and over again. You must read what is sure to be on many ‘Best of’ lists for 2015.”
- Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter.com
“The deep, dense prose Kiefer uses makes you slow down and take it all in. Word by word and sentence by sentence, Kiefer reels the reader into his world.”
- Heather Bobula, The Life Sentence
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My only reservation stems from the fact that within this very good novel there is a very, very good, or even great novel that is never quite realized because it’s weighted down by needless gimmicks. I can’t count how many times I was forced to cycle back through the pages to get my footing because so many scenes—not merely sections or chapters, but individual scenes—begin in media res before eventually circling around to connect with a previously opened strand of action. Then there’s the occasional use of the second person narrative voice, which works beautifully in the blackjack and slot machine episodes, where Nat is so driven by his gambling addiction that he’s estranged from normal selfhood and renders his experience as a “you,” not as an “I.” But strangely, some episodes of his equally degraded gambling behavior remain in the third person, undercutting the effect of those second-person scenes.
Yet much of the writing itself is glorious and could be said to sing, though it does lapse into overwriting at points, with extra adjectives or whole extra sentences tacked onto descriptions of the desert or the snowy forest or the internal state of the narrator when those things have been elegantly described already. However skilled the singer, not every passage needs a grace note or a sustained high C.
Add to this the decision to eschew all quotation marks indentifying dialogue, and the gimmicks combine to require so much decoding that they often push the reader out of the story. Of course, I can’t fault the author for wanting to experiment with form. Jose Saramago, giving voice to entirely different material, has made himself an international name by doing just that. But I do fault the editors at W.W. Norton for not reigning Kiefer in and enforcing greater order in material that doesn’t benefit from experimentation. Sadly, they may have deprived him and themselves of sharing the glory of a Pulitzer or a National Book Award, because without gimmicks, this novel would be in that league.
This majestic debut “Grit Lit” (but, not Southern) thriller combines suspense, a heartfelt story of redemption, and the bond between humans and animals.
Human/animal relationships, redemption, having a sense of purpose, moving on from the past, animals in captivity
What I Liked:
- This book feels like “grit lit” (see Rory’s great discussion of this term), but it’s not Southern. What to call it?! The Animals had me scouring the Internet for a term for this!
- I expected to be immediately swept away by the suspense surrounding Bill’s criminal past. What did he do and how does it come back to haunt him? Instead, I was surprised to find myself swept away by Bill’s relationships with the animals in his rescue (including a blind grizzly bear and a three-legged wolf). They are his friends and family and saviors. Kiefer’s writing about the animals is beautiful and heartfelt and had me emotionally invested in their fates.
"[…] there was judgment in those pale, sightless eyes without expression, the bear’s gaze only holding within them the same acceptance that Bill had always seen there, as if nothing would be asked of him ever, as if the only thing Bill could ever do wrong was not return."
- The Animals was a bit of a slow build for me, but not in a bad way. I was just reading along while Kiefer was busy creating the beauty and majesty of the animals before gradually realizing “wow, I’m really getting into this”. This adept pacing got me a bit more into the story with every page I read.
- The book touches on the moral dilemma of raising animals meant for the wild in captivity, even if they’re injured to the point where they likely wouldn’t survive long on their own. This got me thinking and provided a nice platform for one of Bill’s internal battles.
What I Didn’t Like:
- The writing had a tendency to get a little mumbo-jumboy. For example, this part of the first paragraph wasn’t my favorite:
"The world in its bubble and you holding fast to its slick interior as if to the blood-pumped safety of a womb. You and the animals."
- The ending dragged a bit for me. But, I don’t want to spoil things by saying anymore here!
A Defining Quote:
"His uncle taught him how to feed the grizzly and he remembered, still remembered, the feeling, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was doing something important, that he was needed and wanted […]"
Good for People Who Like:
Page turners, literary thrillers, suspense, dark stories, “Grit Lit”, animals
Check out my blog, Sarah's Book Shelves, for more reviews.