The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

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The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, Alice's sister ran away to marry a cowboy. For the rich people in Desert Valley neither of things matter... for the Winston Barn, they spark a series of downturns through which Alice learns the harsh truths of class and money and unexpected violence. The stables of Winston Barn, and the horses and people that populate them spend a summer showing us the complexity of love, loss and relationships. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 978-0297851868

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Alice Winston is twelve years old and not exactly the most popular girl in school.

Her older sister, Nona, darling of the horse-show world has run away to marry a rodeo cowboy - which in the closed, old, world of Desert Valley, Colorado is something of a scandal. Not the kind of scandal that makes people want to know everything there is, wants a part of the reflected infamy... just the kind that sets the family a little bit further apart. The kind that makes folks keep a little more distance, like running-away-to-rodeo might be contagious.

Then something worse hits the small town. Polly Cain drowns in the canal. Polly is a classmate, but not exactly a friend, of Alice's. No-one knows how she came to fall into the canal. The path is broad and is walked every day, by those that live out that way. This is a scandal much more worthy of schoolgirls' morbid attention, so Nona's departure becomes a non-event.

Except for Alice, and her father. The 'barn' they run - what would be called a 'stables' in Britain - is struggling to survive. With Nona gone, gone is also a willing hand in all the hard and heavy work that horses require, gone is the light and the fire, gone too, the show-ring success that brought in custom for the Training, Equitation, Breeding that the Winston Barn offers. It prides itself on the absence of 'Boarders' from that sign... but needs must.

Alice works every hour god sends but it isn't enough. She cannot replace her sister. Her father doesn't notice.

A poor little rich girl arrives to learn how to ride, who is going to be the answer to their prayers... but, of course, poor little rich girls don't grow up around horses... and the horses know it. Sheila is anything but a natural. Still, Joe figures, she'll tell her friends... and there'll be more money to be made.

When that doesn't happen quite as quickly as the Winstons' hoped and the hottest summer in 15 years begins to bite hard, and the aircon fails, pride is swallowed and the 'boarders' arrive. Rich people for whom horses are a hobby: sensitive beasts who cannot sleep on straw or must drink bottled water (the horses, that is, not their super-rich, bored-housewife owners - but maybe them too).

Meanwhile... Alice's mother continues to languish in her room as she has done all of Alice's young life. Melancholy, bedridden, weak, and watching. How much does she see from her window? And what exactly made her quite so.... detached?

This closed claustrophobic world of the barn, and the small town it serves, is where Aryn Kyle takes us for a summer and a while. A short time, a few characters, and a tale in which we watch a twelve-year-old learn how the world works.

This isn't a twelve-year-old's tale however. Alice Winston stands almost outside the world... largely shunned by her school-friends, she is drawn to but cannot fully accept the rich clients at the barn; she is growing up quick, but her father doesn't see, her mother is 'absent' in all but the merely physical, and her sister, her one protector against the world is gone.

She is our observer. It is her view of live at the Winston Barn that we see. And largely, from her perspective, it is all perfectly normal. She knows her mother is 'just sad'. She knows that there isn't a horse that can't be replaced... but despite that, her father will go to Kill Sales and rescue the wild and destitute and beaten animals and save them from the renderers... he will spend time, and patience, and love on them until they are freed into the retirement pasture to live out their days... giving skittish children a ride, but free of all obligation or fear.

When asked, she says: yes, I know my father. But she knows she does not. Of her mother she knows even less. What really happened?

As the summer progresses, Alice's world spirals into unpredictable configurations... everything changes. Harsh realities are heaped upon her, and she makes her own choices, and between the two she stumbles into an adult world where "there are no secrets, only things that remain unsaid" - a world where it is hard to know who to trust. This is a harsh world and a violent one.

Kyle captures the twelve-year perfectly. That watershed between youth and adulthood that is always put down to hormones, but is just as much about intellect and knowledge... the growing awareness of how much you hadn't seen before, the yearning to do and be more than you think you'll ever be allowed, the straining at the rein. Beyond that, the utter selfishness of youth... bound in, by duty and or fear of authority... struggling beyond the bounds and taking what she can get.

The Winston Barn horses thread through the tale, but it is not so much their individual personalities that matters (as well drawn as they are), it is horse as cypher... for the way humans relate to horses, to other animals, to each other. There are moments of real connection, true communication, beauty and power... and there is the rest of the time. Business. A game. Just nature.

Or not.

If The Horse Whisperer showed us how it can be, how it should be... The God of Animals shows how it more usually is.

This is a powerful tale, very gently told.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

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Buy The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle at Amazon.com.

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