The Beast Is An Animal, Peternelle van Arsdale, Hardcover, 352pp, February 2017, Margaret K. McElderry Books
Full Disclosure: I follow Peternelle van Arsdale on Twitter, we have mutual friends, I have met and hugged her, and I am an admirer of her personal ethos, style, and real world comportment. That said, I was not asked to read or publicize this book. I bought my copy from my amazing local bookseller, The Curious Iguana [click here].
Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Beast Is An Animal is an artfully wrought, beautifully written novel of Gothic intensity in which a fantastic world is brought to life in such observant detail it becomes reality, and, like life, its many layers make finding one’s truth not a matter of reduction to polarities of right/wrong and good/evil, but, rather, a complicated journey traveled without a map. So rich and leveled is the novel, it deserves reflection and meditation worthy of its masterly, glorious depth and heft; as in, The New York Times or New Yorker ought put someone on the case, assigning a long think-piece ruminating on Peternelle van Arsdale’s near magical creation of an imaginary world that speaks so eloquently to the moral questions and conundrums of these troubled and complicated times.
Which is my way of warning you, I will need to ruminate at length to make certain I’ve done justice to this novel. Or, you can stop right here, trusting me when I say this novel will capture you from its haunting prelude and never let you go until you’ve read the final, marvelous sentence, and run to get your copy now and read it for yourself.
There are people in the world for whom things are never simple because these rare and extraordinary folk have the empathy, wisdom, understanding, and patience to recognize that the world, its inhabitants, and its events are far more complicated than surface appearances would indicate; their way of seeing precludes easy labeling and their depth of soul requires of them an exhaustive exploration of the why and the how and what of every situation, every person, especially themselves. These people recognize that there is a full spectrum of light and dark within every human being, and the beasts we most fear are within us.
There are far too few of these aware people nowadays, the values of reason and compassion having largely fallen prey to the culture of self-interest and me first. Why?
Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, argued persuasively that fairy tales teach us to access the deeper meaning in literature (and life), developing the intellect and imagination and in doing so, we learn through fantasy to cope with existential anxiety and unconscious fears so that when real life presents us with difficult and scary situations, we’ve some internal compass by which to operate.
In other words, fairy tales (and the stories we tell) teach us to look at a complicated world with a generosity of spirit. Especially in these troubled times of byzantine global disruptions and amoral power-grabbing, riches-grubbing legerdemain, we need literature that offers both escape and reminders to tame the beast (fear) within us and see things from all perspectives, to eschew name calling and turning into villains those not like us, who don’t look like we do, don’t think like we do, don’t live like we do, and don’t believe like we do.
Which makes Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Beast Is An Animal not only a compelling read, but a necessary one.
Our heroine, Alys, is seven years old when first she meets twin sisters who are soul eaters, and she tucks away that secret knowledge, lives in fear of it. She is fascinated by and terrified of these spectral wraiths, and as she suffers and braves the far-reaching result of their creation and appearance, she comes to blame herself for these events. Worse, and far more frightening, she identifies with the forest phantoms, recognizes within herself a connection to them, and struggles with her own inchoate incorporeality and beastly urges.
Alys must hide this secret and her doubts from a world suspicious and afraid of what is other, and after the soul eaters have emptied all the adults of life force, Alys and the other children from her home village of Gwenith are transported to Defaid where they are taken in by village families but treated as less than, and there is much suspicion and whispered gossip about Alys and her culpability in the soul eaters massacre of her home village.
Alys recognizes the danger of the narrowness of mind in these folk who attribute all that is other, all that is confusing or frightening to the influence of The Beast, with whom Alys has spoken and who Alys knows is not the source of pure evil the people of Defaid believe it to be. Listen;
One of the things villagers from Defaid didn’t trust about travelers is that they came in so many colors. The people of Defaid only came in shades of milk, but travelers from the Lakes were those colors and more. Folks were drawn there from all the far corners of Byd.
There are myriad levels, so many rich, thought-provoking layers of meaning in this novel, yet never does it strike a polemical note; the allegories arise from the truth of a compelling narrative, not heavy-handed metaphor. Peternelle van Arsdale manages to deftly create a lovely, evolved and fascinatingly unique human character in Alys, while managing to make her an every-person as well. It is easy to see in Alys and the world’s reaction to her the same struggles and challenges and bigotry that women (and girls and young women) and people of color and LGBTQ people and all we other face; the pressure to hide our particular gifts and qualities, to conform and bow down to the dictates and standards of a culture and power structure in which we are denied our power of self, a world which expects us to quietly acquiesce to its insistence that who we are is somehow less than.
Alys manages — not without gargantuan struggle and being charged with changing reality — to resist and survive the pervasively deadening and soul-eating pressure to hide her truth, her gifts, the embrace and ownership of which will give her the capacity to change and save her world.
It is so essential in these times where broad-stroke hatred and judgment are being paraded as patriotism and mistaken as path to greatness that we encourage and facilitate the acceptance and affirmation of individuality, self-esteem, and autonomy of thought; to remember that there are good and bad feelings, urges, and parts in all of us, and the integration of those into a whole and thoughtful human whose self-respect allows them to honor the dignity and inherent grace in all others and to recognize the heroine in the beast, and the beast in the heroine is the only way we survive these times.
Is such a possibility a fairy tale? Maybe. But in Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Beast Is An Animal the complexity of worlds and being human is explored in a straightforward, ingenious manner which does not succumb to wretched dystopian melancholy, but, instead, is imbued with hope and faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity; the heroine triumphs over the beast not by blindly striking out to destroy and disappear it, but, rather, in visionary cooperation and acceptance, acting with integrity and conscious, considered allegiance to her own truth and moral code.
There, I’m afraid I can’t do any better than this and still I’ve not fully expressed how much I loved this beautiful book and how deeply I was moved by its world and characters. But, I know, 1300 words is too long, so I’ll stop. Well, one more thing: this novel is categorized as Young Adult, but, as with most labels, I think that is reductionist and doesn’t begin to encompass the all that is-ness of this powerful and — as I said — necessary novel.
Five stars. Read it.
For more Peternelle van Arsdale — and insight into what makes her one of those superhumans who sees both beauty and beast within herself, does not surrender to easy judgments, and radiates a rare and expansive humanity, read her essay from LitHub; How I Learned To Stop Worrying About The Market And Just Write. [click here]