Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault and rape.
On the cover pictured above, Lisa Taddeo’s Animal is described as a ‘raging, funny and fierce thriller’ by the Financial Times. In my honest opinion, it is probably only two of those things, and it is certainly not funny. Taddeo’s debut novel follows Joan, a thirty-seven year old woman who flees from New York to Los Angeles after her (married) ex-lover Vic kills himself in front of her as she’s out for dinner one night. Now, in the sweltering and sticky heat of the Topanga Canyon, she starts searching for ‘the one person alive who can help her make sense of her past:’ a young fitness guru named Alice. In short, Animal is a story about sisterhood, sex, and the insidious ways in which your past can follow and practically hunt you down.
If someone asked me to describe myself in a single word, depraved is the one I would use.Animal by Lisa Taddeo, p. 9.
It becomes clear almost immediately that Joan is exactly as she describes herself to be: depraved. The second word she would use to describe herself is ‘survivor’, and this is also incredibly apt. Joan is a particularly complex and troubled woman, who has a rather concerning relationship (or actually, lack thereof) with women. Not just with the women in her life, but women as an entire social group, as a gender. As a small child she constantly wanted to be around her mother, despite how cold and unloving she was to her. Often, she would crawl into her mother’s bed at night, in an attempt to cuddle into her side, only to roughly be told to go back to her own bed. Near the end of the novel, she says that she hated her mother simply ‘for being a woman’, but at the same time she was completely captivated by her. On the other hand, she is incredibly familiar with men, mostly married older ones, and strategically so. Joan is used to men giving her expensive, luxurious items that she might want but has no real need for, which feeds into her love of the ostentatious. On the whole, her lovers are either older and married to other women, or much younger and more carefree: they are never her own age, never that similar to her. Although she’s made it this far without close women in her life, except her Aunt Gosia, her story within Animal will come to be shaped by female relationships, both new and old.
Rape is a word used with increasing frequency throughout Animal, and shockingly so. Within the first twenty-five pages, Joan pictures herself being raped. Later, she describes her first intimate encounter with Vic, in which he lays her head on his lap on his head, as a ‘small rape.’ Throughout the novel, Joan will describe a series of what she calls ‘small rapes’, those seemingly insignificant encounters with men in which they do violate you, but not violently or obviously so. Those instances when their gaze lingers too long and far too intimately, when a hand applies gentle but determined pressure. The multitude of her experiences, largely traumatic and sexual, have made her a fundamentally erotic being. As a child, she was strangely inappropriate and overtly sexual, and her aunt taught her how to use this to her advantage. At one point, she describes her first intimate encounter at age ten (though she pretends to be old enough to have a seven-year-old daughter) with a man in his mid-40s, a sexual assault, and her second-hand experience of her grandmother’s rape.
Animal largely seems to be a story about relatively unhinged and somewhat terrifying women: there’s Joan, who uses sex as a strategic tool, is wholly scared of other women, and is frightening in her pursuit; there’s Eleanor, delusional, vulnerable, and only slightly homicidal; and Alice, who is a tad coldhearted and cruel, and just a little bit overfamiliar; as well as Mary, who is lonely, depressed, and livid. As well as these women in the present, through flashbacks we encounter Joan’s mother, who was distant, cold, but ferocious.
Overall, by the novel’s end I was completely disgusted. I finished the book solely to know how it ends, and I found it wholly unsatisfying. I don’t entirely see why this has been hailed as an enjoyable or amazing read. It’s unbelievably graphic and unnecessarily so. I think it was more than possible to illustrate the ways in which Joan has been abused, and will go on to abuse others, without repetitively graphic and unsettling scenery. Finally, it’s erotic in all the wrong ways. The heavy focus on sex means that sex scenes are beyond common, but many of these are tinged with violence. In fact, I think the majority of the sex depicted by Taddeo here cannot be appropriately described as consensual. Alternatively, I think the writing here is quite fearless. There are moments you can enjoy or find satisfying, albeit rather briefly, and I can see that Animal speaks to wider issues of gendered violence and sexual and familial trauma. I’ve said before that I love books that are impactful, and will stick with me for at least a short while after I’ve finished them. And Animal certainly does that, but for all the wrong reasons. All in all, I’ve given it three stars; underneath all the uninhibited depictions of sexual violence, trauma, and slight body horror, there’s definitely a fascinating story that deserves to be told. But, and I’m not too sure when, Animal crossed one line too many for my personal tastes.