I’m fascinated with coming-of-age stories but the big problem that I’ve had with my own is finding how to engage the reader and keep the piece moving, yet still convey the story I set out to tell from the start. I recently read Alison Smith’s fine coming-of-age memoir, Name All The Animals, mainly on the merits of a favorable review by essayist and journalist Richard Gilbert. I was particular enticed by Gilbert’s saying her narrative moved “like a freight train.” I have to agree. Smith is a master at organizing her material to provoke interest.
At fifteen, Ms. Smith loses her eighteen-year-old brother in a car crash, and her staunchly Catholic family shudders in the grief and loss that follow. Her brother dies almost immediately in the narrative, possibly as early as the second chapter. She then has to describe not only losing her faith as a result of her grief, but also falling victim to an eating disorder and then discovering she is a lesbian. She sets up a reveal about her brother’s death to heighten narrative tension (as will happen any time you purposely hide information from your reader), but this reveal does more than just build suspense.
I found myself immersed in an experience similar to that of a fifteen-year-old struggling to wrap her mind around an awful truth while a well-meaning community actively suppress certain information. When I finally did learn the truth of the reveal, I found myself all too willing to identify with Alison, quietly lulled into accepting her peculiar eating habits, which aren’t initially presented as eating disorder, but something more like ritual. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I resigned myself to them, knowing that it isn’t a particularly healthy alternative for a girl to shun her food, but allowing it as normal for young Alison Smith, this poor child struggling to cope.
Establishing this strong sense of empathy allows Smith to offer another surprise in her narrative. In the scene where she unintentionally reveals her eating habits to her friend and budding love interest, we readers already know Smith’s secret, but because we have been brought in so close to her emotionally, we feel shocked to see Smith’s grief from the perspective of her lover, someone on the outside looking in. I even felt a little chastised as I read the scene, almost as if between the three of us who were there (the childhood incarnation of Ms. Smith, her girlfriend, and me) the girlfriend was really the only healthy emotional person available. This perverse twist was the highlight of the book for me.
I also want to point out something about how Smith presents the characters. This is a story about a religious family, in an equally conservative and religious community, written by a girl who is about to take a huge U-turn away from all of those conventions. Clearly there are going to be some hard feelings, but this is where Smith’s work really shines. She has a tenderness, a certain light touch.
Take, for example, the scene where she loses her faith. Smith renders this scene literally: Jesus sits on the lip of her bathtub, meekly shrugging his shoulders in response to her questions about how her brother could have died such a horrible death. Regardless of how you feel about religion, or big questions like, “Why do the innocent suffer?,” you must acknowledge the warmth and reverence with which she treats this loss. In fact, all her characters get this treatment. When her mother launches into a homophobic rant, the narrator remains quiet, as she should. Smith understands that her character’s behavior is indictment enough. Attending Catholic school at Our Lady of Mercy High School, Smith could well offer the Catholic Church her descriptions of the religious community she found there for use as promotional material: these Nuns are constantly busy either making us readers laugh, or saving Alison Smith’s life, time and time again.
Thanks for the plug–and for this great review. You put your finger on an important aspect of her book, her compassion, that truly does distinguish it. Nice job.
Thanks for the kind words, Richard. I think you’re exactly right about her compassion–there is probably a place for settling old scores, but it’s almost like you have to be willing to let all that go to get to a complex, emotionally rich, and compelling memoir. I know I still struggle with it in my stories. Probably for the best.