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by Alison Smith
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2004
Review by Christian Perring on May 7th 2004

Name All the Animals

Alison Smith's memoir Name All the Animals covers the years of her adolescence from the time that her elder brother Roy was killed in a camper van crash up to her graduation from high school.  Her parents coped with their grief with their devout Roman Catholic belief, but they never talked about any painful or difficult feelings.  For years after Roy's death, Alison would secret away her dinner food in a paper bag on her lap and then while her parents were watching the evening news, she would sneak out to the fort she and Roy had built in the garden, and she would leave the food for him.  In the morning, it would be gone.  She copied his journal and pasted up pages on the inside walls of the fort.  She went to local used book stores to find duplicate copies of the books had in his bedroom, and she put these duplicates up on shelves in the fort.  Smith became extremely thin because she was not eating enough, keeping her food for her dead brother instead.  In a way, her behavior mirrored her mother's, since her mother went out and bought a camper van to replace the one that had been destroyed in the crash just weeks after the tragedy.  She equipped it with all the supplies that had been lost in the accident, taking days to replace everything down to the smallest detail.  Her mother's capacity for denial had long been a family joke.  Whenever she heard someone say something she didn't like, she simply commented "you did not say that," and she would walk away.  A couple of years after the accident, her mother became very concerned about her daughter's emotional health, and read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' On Death and Dying.  She came to the conclusion that Alison should talk about her feelings, and hounded her every evening to say what she was feeling.  When Alison finally tells how much she misses her brother and how she wishes she had been with him in the van when he was killed, her mother stopped asking how she felt. 

As the weeks after Roy's death proceeded, Smith began to feel that God had abandoned her, and gradually, for a number of reasons, Smith started to question her Church's teachings.  She went to a Catholic high school, Our Lady of Mercy, and was taught by nuns.  Smith became known as the girl whose brother had died, and she is treated with a mixture of compassion and care.  She is not allowed to take the same risks as other girls, because she is the girl whose brother died.  This isolates her further from the other girls, and she becomes more of an outsider.  When a new girl Terry arrives at school, Smith is drawn to her, and the two spend lots of time together.  The friendship evolves into romance, and Terry becomes Alison's first love.  The two of them play a dangerous game, risking expulsion and family wrath to meet in secret.  The intensity of their relationship transforms Alison's life, but it also deepened the divide between her and her parents and other friends. 

Smith's writes in lyrical prose, and often her memoir seems more like a novel.  She provides details so small that it would be virtually impossible to remember them, things like their facial expressions, their clothes, their mannerisms, and exactly what they said, and so it feels as if she is using a creative license in her prose.  What's more, the events themselves have a dramatic aspect that give them the air of a carefully constructed story.  The day before Roy's death, Alison got her first period, and when skating at a local rink, she noticed a drop of blood on the ice.  Alison's forbidden teenage lesbian relationship at Our Lady of Mercy School almost smacks of cliché.  However, the story is so powerful and her telling of it so moving that the literary feel to the writing does not undermine the experience of reading or listening to the abridged audiobook.  Smith herself reads the audio version of the book, and her reading is slightly hushed and monotone, but the fact that it is her story adds to the effect of hearing it. 

Smith's family ultimately copes with its loss and the gulf between her and her parents ceases to threaten a split between them, although they never engaged in therapy or sought any professional help.  Smith herself is a keen observer of her family and she has a striking ability to convey her own feelings to the reader. Name All the Animals is one of the most distinctive memoirs of teenage grief and emerging sexuality available.

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.