The winter publishing season is a big deal in France, I had set my eyes on this new novel : The Animals by Christian Kiefer. I have to add that Richard Ford’s words were a big help : “A rare young stylist, with an abundance of vivid, engrossing stories in his brain; Christian Kiefer is a genuine find.“
You also know my love for : 1/ nature writing 2/American novelists 3/First novels. And I was so lucky to find it in my mailbox. A big thanks to you, François. I kept seeing reviews of that book popping up everywhere but I didn’t want to be influenced so I read none. I wanted to feel as if I was the first one to read it. I actually got it in French initially but I decided to order it in English to read it again.
Before getting to the story, I have to tell you that I was genuinely surprised to see that I knew the region the story takes place in, from Nevada, Winemucca to the Sierra Mountains to the Idaho woods and Coeur d’Alene surroundings. This is where Bill Reed lives. Bill manages a wildlife sanctuary in rural Idaho, caring for injured animals unable to survive in the wild : raptors, badgers, racoons, but also a wolf and his beloved bear, Majer. This place used to belong to his beloved Uncle who died a few years after Bill moved in. He hopes to marry the local vet, Grace, and live out a quiet life.
But Heaven is not eternal. Rick’s come back, a childhood friend released from prison, threatens Bill’s future. Because Rick knows Bill’s darkest secrets. And the only way out for Bill is to confront his past, to battle fiercely, not only to preserve his hard-won new identity but also to preserve the shelter. As kids, Rick was the wild one, the strong one and Bill still feels that way. As the clash comes closer, Bill’s past is slowly revealed to the readers and what Bill was trying so hard to withhold.
Christian Kiefer’s talent is to turn the warm and protective thick woods of Idaho into a darker and threatening place. Little by little, all of Bill’s benchmarks are falling apart. What is his secret ?
A few pages in, I couldn’t help thinking about Smith Henderson’s book, First of July Creek. Both writers have set up their stories in the same area, the same time (the 80’s), into the woods, with the omniscient nature, and its most vivid symbol : the bear. And both writers have drawn beautiful portraits of these rural inhabitants. Bill grew up in a small town in the desert, in Nevada. Battle Mountain is a coal mine town. He lived in a trailer park with his Mom and his beloved big brother. Alternating between the past and the present, Kiefer’s novel is mastered from the beginning to the end.
When Bill remembers his childhood, riding with his brother, I had tears in my eyes. Bill and Rick meet at the age of 13, Rick spends as much time as he can at Bill’s place, to flee the domestic violence of his home. They loved TV shows, it’s 1984. They mostly watched a famous animal TV show (Nat Geo).
Bill’s most vivid memory is his visit to his Uncle’s sanctuary in Idaho, when he sees Majer, the bear has mesmerized him. He had brought back a book given by his Uncle : a wildlife’s guide from the Northwestern region. Growing up, Bill carried that book everywhere with him, noting each plant or animal he saw, to the astonishment of Rick.
Tired of their boring lives, the boys hit the road for Reno. Troubles started. Twelve years later, Bill’s got a new life when the National Forest officer shows up at his door to let him know he doesn’t have any licence to run this sanctuary. The first crack in Bill’s life. The second is Rick’s phone call.
In a beautiful scenery, where I had the chance to go, Christian Kiefer delivers a beautiful story about redemption of a man going to drastic lengths in order to escape the consequences of his actions. A man forced to face his worst enemy : himself. Christian Kiefer’s other talent is his ability to turn this book into a thriller, the confrontation between these two men being inescapable. And I really enjoyed travelling back from Nevada to Idaho.
Let’s not forget about the sanctuary and the inner violence of these animals and its metaphor into the main characters.
“And for the first time, you understand that everyone is a killer : here in the forest, in the desert from which you have come, indeed perhaps the world itself nothing more than a vast field for dealing out of death, some odds so slight as to be impossible to gauge”.
I spent my week-end in their company, and once again I could smell the pinewoods, I could remember camping in these woods, seeing that black bear scratching is back against an oak tree, or watching this herd of deers at the edge of the forest.
A great noir noir – an essential reading ! And Richard Ford was entirely right.