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The Animals: A Novel Hardcover – March 23, 2015
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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.
But through a series of flashbacks, we discover that Bill is not all he seems. He appears to be reinventing himself from a troubled past; he and his best friend, Rick, seemed to be headed towards unredeemed lives. During one fatal encounter, Rick took the rap and ended up in prison; Bill fled and recreated himself in Idaho. The questions at this novel's core are: what price survival? What moral laws govern our lives?
For awhile, it's easy to get lulled into a sense of complacency that this will not surpass a run-of-the-mill thriller with pat lines. (One example is Bill’s musings about the animals: “They had saved him and he would do the same for them.” But establishing the human-animal connection is important. Bill never feels more affirmed than when he is tending to the animals, the blind and tame grizzly bear Majer, the wild injured wolf Zeke and others. We've seen this type of dynamic before and we think we know where this story is heading.
Or do we? Christian Kiefer raises issues that, days later, I am still mulling over. Mr. Kiefer writes, “The universe held its workings in secret and a man could claim nothing from that void and instead would need to design in that obscure and private place that is his heart the laws that would govern his life." Suddenly, morality becomes ambiguous and murky: is someone a "good person" when he “cares for his people” or when he does his best to shed an ugly past and move on? Is it better to be alive and caged or enjoy total freewill with the probability that death is around the corner?
I recognize some of the minor flaws in this book. But still, I found it heartbreaking and shattering. This is a thriller but it’s also a thinking person’s book that is hard to put down…and twice as hard to forget.
There were a lot of losers in this book and I got tired of that being such a large part of the story.
I would not recommend this book to anyone.