On the heels of her non-fiction Three Women, which debuted on The New York Times’s bestseller list at number one, comes Lisa Taddeo’s first foray into fiction. Animal is a startling book in many ways, and from the very start.

It begins with the suicide of a man who shoots himself in front of his former, much younger lover as she is having dinner with her new lover. The woman is 36-year-old Joan, an advertising executive whose defining actions swiftly reveal themselves to be her constant affairs with married men — both the aforementioned men are married. Joan seems to only want to be with men who are not fully available to her, yet sexualises every interaction with every man in what quickly starts to be a jarring read.

We follow Joan as she drives to Los Angeles, her life packed up in boxes and the ashes of her late parents contained in plastic baggies. She is in search of a woman called Alice, with whom she shares a mysterious connection. Alice is a yoga teacher, younger than Joan, prettier, more popular, nicer — all this according to Joan, who seems quite besotted with her.

While waiting around to befriend Alice, Joan moves into a space owned by a semi-senile old man who often confuses her with his late wife, gets a job at a hipster health cafe and fends off threats from the wife of her dead ex-lover as well as his daughter who may be on her way to kill Joan.

“Almost always in my life there had been one man I desired who was giving me nothing at the same time as there was another who didn’t move me but from whom I was taking very much,” says Joan, who describes herself as depraved, laying claim to “survivor” as the next best descriptor for herself.

A debut novel, about childhood trauma and how it can change us and continue to shape us as adults, makes for some voyeuristic and uncomfortable reading

She isn’t afraid to point out her own flaws as a person, but is oddly disconnected from what should be the most basic of human emotions. This begs the question: how can one be so self-aware, yet lack any empathy with others, and themselves?

But as Joan slowly reveals her past, we start to understand that she is very much a product of the world around her, the world that raised her to believe that girls and women fit into very small, very clichéd boxes: they are either virgin-mother, or whore. As Joan explains, “I’ve been called a whore. I’ve been judged not only by the things I’ve done unto others but, cruelly, by the things that have happened to me.”

Yet it’s hard to not judge Joan, as she seems to drift from one self-destructive act to another, relentlessly making bad choices and decisions. There is no grace, no relief from her relentlessness, from her narcissistic approach to everything. Taddeo never gives in to any pressure to have a likeable protagonist — even given what we learn of her complicated past traumas, Joan is unforgivably selfish, opportunistic and incapable of forming real bonds of friendship.

She considers any woman she meets to be a sexual rival, and all men to be nothing more than sexual exploits, no matter what their age or level of interest in her. Understanding why she is the way she is does not make her any easier to like, or even sympathise with. Her adult life is a little bit of a car crash scenario, one in which the bystander cannot look away from something terrible, something violent and out of control.

I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me. He was a gluttonous man and when his blood came out it looked like the blood of pig. That’s a cruel thing to think, I know. He did it in a restaurant where I was having dinner with another man, another married man. Do you see how this is going? But I wasn’t always that way. — Excerpt from the book

It’s also hard not to take a moral stance against Joan, or any of the male characters when they cheat on their partners, given that every incidence of adultery results in something awful happening, as if the universe is meting out punishment for bad behaviour.

Taddeo wants to push her readers into an uncomfortable corner until they are forced to become voyeurs to Joan’s journey, until they are forced to judge as she interacts with people she has chosen to hurt, interactions she has forcibly sexualised to a disconcerting level.

Her memories of her parents — who died when she was only 10 years old — are often sexualised too, and she never seems able to really connect with her own desires, to the extent that one may question if she truly has any at all, or whether sex and sexual attraction are nothing but tools for her — a currency of power. And while a fair bit of Animal is clunky in its metaphors, and never really subtle, Taddeo is astute and entirely correct in flatly pointing out how society sexualises women from a very young age.

Animal is very much a story about childhood trauma, and how it can change us and continue to shape us as adults. And it is a lot. A lot of trauma, of every imaginable sort — rape, molestation, death, murder, not to mention the immense emotional weight that comes with each event.

Joan seems to exist simultaneously in the past and the present, and so does the story; it is an intertwined dual narrative that reveals both Joan’s childhood, and explains her connection to Alice. “You are all of us. You are the parts of us that no one wants to admit to,” Alice tells Joan, and while this may be true, it is also harsh and raw and makes for some compulsive, but uncomfortable, reading.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Animal
By Lisa Taddeo
Simon and Schuster, US
ISBN: 978-1982122126
336pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 5th, 2021

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