A meditation on the parallels between human and animal nature.
Since the 17th century, when French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s Pensées appeared, many writers have undertaken essays in fragments, using the broken form to juxtapose ideas, to make associative leaps, to tease out analogies (though Pascal’s fragments were the result not of trying to be avant-garde but of dying before completing the text). French novelist Rosenthal (We’re Not Here to Disappear, 2015, etc.) has written what is ostensibly a novel but which reads for much of the book like, well, Pensées. Written in the second person, the novel is loosely plotted as a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist’s life arc is defined by her relationship to animals. Cutting into the loose bildungsroman narrative are nonspecific first-person voices who have various relationships to animals: zoo handlers, researchers, a butcher. In some cases, this interweaving feels overly meditative and makes the narrative static, especially in the more meandering first half. But at other times, it's deeply affecting, as when the teenage “you” has her first love as a teenager and the boy ends his life shortly after the relationship is over. This is interwoven with a voice explaining the conditions under which animals are euthanized—“he’d died sitting up,” says this voice about a zoo elephant, “I’ll never get that image out of my mind.” Although the novel’s power is not evenly distributed, it gathers steam as it goes and even from the outset offers startling and frequently beautiful ruminations on the way the tension between wildness and domesticity affects both humans and beasts.
By eschewing most of the qualities of a traditional novel, Rosenthal’s book takes risks that don’t always pay off—but when they land, they offer luminous moments.