Animal by Lisa Taddeo

Can’t recall the last time I felt terrified while reading but Animal by Lisa Taddeo had me terrified for the first 200 pages and uneasy for the remainder.

The title sets the tone, and from the outset it is unclear whether the narrator, Joan, is the hunter, or the hunted.

The world had set me up to believe that it was women who went mad. It was simply women’s pain that manifested as madness.

Joan left New York after a violent end to a relationship, and settles in Los Angeles, the reason for which is revealed as the book progresses. We move back and forth between the past and the present, and the two story lines gradually twine together, to give the reader a sense of closing in on the prey – ‘…we are all monsters, we are all capable of monstrosity’.

The trope of the animal is extended to explore our instinctual needs and behaviours. Taddeo shows restraint in this respect, and the slow reveal of Joan’s complex family history – ‘My mother was too much for me and she didn’t even live past my tenth year’ – makes a fascinating parallel with her damaged attitude toward men.

The first time Vic and I had sex was in Scotland, but sex has little to do with any first time.

When someone suffocates you with what they believe is love, even as you feel your air supply being cut off, you at least feel embraced.

I wish I had been something so quaint and definable as a mistress.

Animal is not a book that I would say I enjoyed, however, I recognise the immense skill it takes to maintain tension in a narrative for over 300 pages. Like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Animal is a book I’d be reluctant to recommend to anyone – there are distressing themes and a handful of scenes that are graphic (but not gratuitous). Taddeo pushes the line on particular topics (such as rape), and on reflection I wondered how she was able to go so far with some scenes, without it being a book that you simply want to close.

I could sit the pizza deliveryman down, and the propane guy, separate their giant knees, and let them depress my head like a flush valve.

My only conclusion is that as the reader, I gave Taddeo a certain amount of authority because I assumed that her fiction is grounded in fact – fact gathered from lived experience, and from her extensive research for Three Women.

Despite the horror, there are some beautifully written descriptions in Animal. Taddeo’s setting, in the canyons outside of Los Angeles, crackles with heat, coyotes howling, and sunsets ‘…extravagant with tangerines and purples‘.

She lived in Los Angeles, a city I didn’t understand. Mauve stucco, criminals, and glitter.

Descriptions of Joan’s inner world are equally eloquent –

I had to get a place minutes from where she worked. Just as when I was a child and I wanted a tennis skirt and tennis sneakers before ever once striking a tennis ball.

Only people who live their lives very routinely, who have never known abject grief, can love Saturdays and Sundays. For me there was a rickety lonesomeness to them.

4/5 Gripping. And exhausting.

I sat at the outdoor table and drank a greyhound with fresh grapefruit juice and puffed on the pipe. If I’d had a child, I thought, I never would have been able to fresh-squeeze a grapefruit, to rim the glass with salt.

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