Meet Joan, the 37-year old antiheroine of Animal. Her opening lines will enthrall you, riveting you to her story.
“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 a 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.”
This is one of the best opening lines of a novel I have read lately. It sets the tone for the rest of the book – Joan is going to take her readers on a restless journey with a story that has a lot of twists and turns, revealed layer by layer, one page at a time.
Joan leaves New York for Los Angeles in search of Alice, someone who can help her make sense of her past and to deal with the traumas she has had to face since her childhood. On the way, she’ll meet men with whom platonic relationships will be impossible. Sometimes, the men will take advantage of her vulnerability. Sometimes she will take advantage of their lechery.
We discover that something horrible happened to Joan when she was ten – both her parents died. From Joan’s tone, it soon becomes clear that her parents’ death was not natural. There is something that happened the night her parents died that left Joan traumatized and set her on a path of depravity.
It is this, Joan’s depravity powered by her rage, that makes her an Animal. Or does it?
Lisa Taddeo is unsparing in her take on sexual abuse, trauma and a woman’s self-worth
Lisa Taddeo’s writing is hypnotic. The more she speaks through Joan, taking you through her antiheroine’s past and present, the more you feel raw, bloated, and bleeding. Joan is both the prey and the predator, which makes you feel a strong empathy for her, but also leaves you feeling a bit creeped out. Taddeo’s writing is exceptionally good and her observations about the world, sharp, making this one of those rare novels which will tug at your heart.
There are plenty of moments of foreshadowing throughout Animal. You will constantly be expecting something horrible to unravel on the next page, and you won’t see the next twist coming – making this a wonderful thriller.
Many have labeled Lisa Taddeo’s debut novel as a story about rage. There is rage in Joan, yes, but more than that, Animal is also a story about power, control, and a woman’s self-worth triggered by the sexual abuses she has had to face at the hands of men.
“There are rapes, and then there are the rapes we allow to happen, the ones we shower and get ready for. But that doesn’t mean the man does nothing.”
It was in moments like these that I felt Taddeo was taking liberty with words. Her way of defining the “rapes” did not seem quite right to me. It felt like an insert made more for the benefit of scandalizing the reader. But then, as a woman, I do understand what she means and why her choice of words, has such a visceral quality.
Animal is also a story about gender perception and female relationships, both with men and women. In Joan’s world, the men are merciless and everything is colored by sex and sexual innuendo.
“Smart older men will have a way of crawling up your leg. It won’t feel seedy at first and it might seem like it was your idea.”
“It’s funny to think how many corporate dollars are spent so that one man can fuck one woman.”
Joan obsesses about men – Big Sky, and about women – her mother, Alice – and it’s a constant obsession from which she doesn’t seem to find closure. But then obsessions are too powerful to overcome easily.
“There is so much power in the way we obsess. If we could only harness it.”
Animal is also about the search for empowerment. Joan often calls herself depraved but I found moments in which she was more powerful, more in control of who she was and what she wanted, and which should qualify as empowerment rather than depravity.
“I can tell you a lot about sex with a man to whom you are not attracted. It becomes all about your own performance, your own body and how it looks on the outside, the way it moves above this man who, for you, is only a spectator.”
A Wonderful Literary Experience Centered on an Unforgettable Antiheroine
As far as novels go, Animal is right in league with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life when it comes to exaggeration. I kept asking myself the same question while reading both the books – how can so much tragedy strike one person alone? How much exaggeration can a reader bear as the author takes its audiences into an impossibly traumatic journey through the lives of its characters?
Joan shows us a world in which the vulnerable are sexually exploited and then repeatedly abused as their dysfunction grows. The aggression, the fear, the trauma keep building up until it reaches a tipping point – in which the prey switches into the role of a predator.
There were several instances throughout the novel where I felt like Joan was talking about me.
“I could manage any relationship over text message” or “I was not a woman whom other women love.”
Statements like these hit hard and made it almost impossible for me to tear myself away from Joan every time I had to take a break from reading.
Animal is a powerful story and features one of the best antiheroines I’ve met in literature. This book is worth reading for its plot, the depth of its characters, and for Taddeo’s exceptional writing. Definitely one of the best books of 2021!
Have you read Animal, or Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction book, Three Women? What do you think of her writing?