My review of With the Animals by Noëlle Revaz ran today in the Boston Globe.
There’s been an unintended similarity between the last few books I’ve reviewed lately. There was the desultory Norumbega Park and its focus on family and property in the suburbs, then the grim Wish You Were Here and its transfer of those themes to a rural English farm. Noëlle Revaz’s With the Animals is also rather grim, and also concerns the struggles of a farm family, but it’s utterly unique in its approach, a challenging, harrowing tale that is an incredibly rewarding read, if not an enjoyable one.
The narrator of the story (for he almost certainly cannot be described as a protagonist, or even an anti-hero) is Paul, a Swiss farmer who visits unconscionable violence and brutality on his wife and children. Such explosive means are all he has at his disposal; he seems incapable of processing emotion, showing empathy, or even understanding that the people around him are people. The story is told through his voice, a remarkable construction of slang and malformed words that gives insight into how Paul’s warped mind works (or doesn’t work). Reading in his voice is troubling, as the limitations of his thought begin to feel claustrophobic and oppressive; the roughly-hewn argot creeps into your mind and gums up the works. It’s a testament to Revaz’s skill as a writer and storyteller that she was able to use language in such an effective and disturbing way.
When Paul hires Georges, a Portuguese farmhand, the new arrival attempts to teach his boss some degree of decency and compassion, and their uneasy friendship drives the narrative. With the Animals is an unflinching portrayal of callous masculinity run amok, and Revaz never opts for easy characterization or neat plotting; the ambiguous nature and addled point-of-view of the narrative poses difficult questions to the reader, and I think when most people finish this book, they’ll discover that the book is not finished with them.