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Kick the Animal OutReview - Kick the Animal Out
by Veronique Ovalde
MacAdam/Cage, 2007
Review by Ralph Harrington, Ph.D.
May 27th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 22)

'My name is Rose like my mother' says the fifteen-year old narrator of Véronique Ovaldé's Kick the Animal Out. Rose is a child with special needs, although the precise nature of her condition is never specified. She is highly imaginative, driven always to find order in things, an observer of obsessive precision, and prone to unpredictable, sometimes violent, behavior. She is also an immensely strong and hugely engaging individual, and the success of Kick the Animal Out is not least the result of its author's ability to create and make her readers care about, the character of Rose.

The plot of the novel is simple: Rose's mother, the older Rose, disappears, and her daughter wants to find her. That search is a matter of uncovering the past that is Rose's legacy from the adults in her world, and distinguishing between the rival 'truths' that those adults offer her as explanations of the way things are. That mother and daughter have the same name is emblematic of the blurring of identities and the confusion of competing realities and fantasies that make up this extraordinary book. As the plot develops it becomes clear that it is a story not of one absence but of two: not only Rose's mother, but her father as well.

The younger Rose's world swings between the two poles of integration and disintegration, of completeness and the incompleteness symbolized by her mother's absence. The book is filled with images of collapse and fragmentation -- not dramatic and sudden but slow-motion, small-scale traumas: the spilling of food, the fraying of cloth, the leaking away of the energies of life. Rose's response is a constant striving to put things together and make them orderly, 'creating imaginary grids' that bring tidiness and closure to the open-ended messiness of reality. She does not expect things to be permanent, she already has 'an intimate knowledge of disappearances', and in wanting her mother to return she wants above all to be able to understand her disappearance: 'I want to understand how everything works in my life, why everyone lies with such perfect candor.'

At the heart of the story lie acts of violence, infidelity and simple human folly, and as the reader follows Rose's exploration of her family's hidden histories it becomes clear that while the accepting of responsibility is a key to her process of understanding, the apportioning of blame is not. When Rose is asked by the authorities of her Institute why she jumped from a window -- killing not herself but a canary whose cage she struck on the way down -- she resists the implication that it was all about those who had hurt her: 'they couldn't imagine that this was simply to do with me, me who might not wish me well.'

The adult relationships around Rose are weak, lacking in passion, emptied of feeling and commitment, but she herself is strong. The strength of her will and her total integrity brings her in the end to the truth and to closure. It is hardly a happy ending, but one finishes the book inspired by the way Rose has fought and reasoned her way out of the state of lonely and sometimes despairing incomprehension in which she began. Ovaldé depicts Rose as a complex girl, captivating and infuriating, courageous, strong, but fragile, who is both burdened and enriched by her particular way of looking at the world. She is a deeply-imagined and entirely convincing heroine.

Ovaldé's prose, beautifully rendered into English by translator Adriana Hunter, is cool, distant and poetic, illuminated by images of haunting beauty and precision. Some readers may find the constant chronological shifting within the narrative confusing, and some passages are difficult to follow on first reading: the book is not a straightforward or a comfortable read. At times it requires effort, but that effort is always worthwhile. This sad, beautiful and inspiring story, however, will repay the effort of re-reading, and indeed of many re-readings.

© 2008 Ralph Harrington

Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://www.greycat.org


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