Drenched in depravity

Drenched in depravity

This much-anticipated novel is a visceral and sordid journey into the protagonist's highly toxic life of want, need, manipulation and exploitation.

Animal

If someone asked me to describe myself in a single word, depraved is the one I would use.” This is how Joan, the nearly 37, hanging-by-a-thread anti-heroine of Lisa Taddeo’s debut novel Animal, characterises herself. Animal is a visceral and sordid narrative of Joan’s highly toxic life of want, need, manipulation, and exploitation. It is a literary experience that delivers not through dramatic and emotional punches, but by taking you along a piercingly dark plot that flirts with being lewd and licentious; it is also often gory, leaving nothing to imagination.

Disquieting from the start, Animal takes off with Joan fleeing New York after her married lover and boss shoots himself before her while she’s at a restaurant with another married lover. She drives to Los Angeles to track down a yoga instructor named Alice who holds some key to Joan’s traumatic past, though Alice herself is unaware of any connection between them. Joan rents a dilapidated house from a wealthy widower in Topanga Canyon and presses into Alice’s life with a need that confuses herself. Taddeo weaves stories of Joan’s past with her present in a dusty, predatory environment where both men and women are hunters of each other and unravels a tumultuous story that Joan recounts as a cautionary tale with brutal honesty.

Raging jealousies

Animal is steeped in themes of sexual assault, raging jealousy, crimes of passion, male validation, the male gaze, manipulation, seduction, emptiness, and the longing for motherhood. Taddeo gives Joan a mother who is as ravishing as she is cold and distant, a father with one secret that fractures her entire world, and a childhood that coerced a young girl to grow up too fast leaving behind a childlike heart underneath a hard exterior.

These collectively transform her into a woman who craves the approval of people who will never choose her, looks at women only to see all that she is not, uses men for her own needs while also suffering their repulsive presence, and suffers the inattention of those who mean something to her.

The story may feel chaotic as it moves back and forth in time with its numerous ambiguities: What unspeakable tragedy fell upon Joan’s late parents? What is Alice’s unknowing part in Joan’s life? Who is Joan addressing her story to? Taddeo answers all of these in gripping prose that draws you in for more with every page turn. It is relatively easy to guess some of these mysteries that are ultimately revealed, but this doesn’t take away from the deeply unsettling elucidations.

No filters

Joan is the centre of every page. She is fascinating in her depravity, the detachment with which she embraces her neuroticism, and the ease with which she thinks of murder. She is a host of contradictory attributes. Vulnerable and resilient, gullible and cynical, needy and uncoupled, cruel and kind.

Raised by her aunt Gosia to use her sexuality, to always ask questions and never answer them, to always have more secrets than the person you are with (though Gosia imbibes these lessons more to equip her with defenses against life’s cruelty rather than wily skill), Joan epitomises everything women are told not to be. 

Animal is definitely not a book for everyone. It is very much intended to offend with a lead character who is meant to be unlikeable. It is not a witty commentary on one woman taking on the patriarchy. It is a story meant to linger in your mind with its needle-sharp aphorisms. It is a book intended to horrify with graphic scenes, cruel characters, and a gamut of triggers: sexual assault, infidelity, miscarriage, and suicide. Taddeo attempts to filter nothing and writes with a clinical dispassion and disconnectedness that heightens the bleakness of the book. Yet, it is almost impossible to put down. Animal is like no book I’ve ever read. It is more than the sum of its parts.

Set in a world where there is more conventional immortality than one expects (and no character has been spared of this ‘wrongness’ so to say), it is a dark exploration of what it takes for a woman to survive in a world of predators.