Name All the Animals: A Memoir by Alison Smith. Scribner. 319 pages.
But they’re on the brink of disaster, and, almost immediately, it happens: one day in late July the boy, eighteen, dies in a fiery automobile crash. Nothing will ever be the same. They become secretive, walled off their separate grieving, as the accident’s aftershocks go on and on. Alison Smith, who was fifteen when her brother Roy died, writes hushed, gorgeous prose (few contractions lend solemnity), and shows the survivors staggering forward under heartbreaking loss.
“We had lost the thread of our own story,” she writes.
Alison can only rejoice in the “Before People,” her term for anyone who doesn’t yet know of Roy’s death: inside their heads, he’s still alive. Her relentlessly positive-thinking mother, having insisted a month after Roy’s death on making the family’s annual trek to Cape Cod, throws herself into the ocean just like she and her son used to. She orders onion rings, his favorite beach snack, and eats them grimly. Her stunned father plods like a zombie into the surf, still wearing his slacks and socks.
Smith says neither side of her family “was good at much,” these people who held modest jobs, went bankrupt, or died early, but faith had been their talent:
My brother and I grew up in the shadow of this faith, in the great floodplain of belief. Christ was more real to me than the children I met at school. As I was walking to the school bus or down the path through the gully at the end of our street, Christ would appear to me, his long robes flowing, his white and bruised hands held out. He was my comforter, my most intimate friend. I knew only Catholics in those early days. And our only differences were Catholic differences: the Sisters of Saint Joseph as opposed to the Sisters of Mercy. Pope John Paul the First or Pope John Paul the Second. In these surroundings you’d be hard-pressed not to believe in the existence of God. It would be like saying you did not believe in oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity. . . .
Hell was a real place for us, as real as the next neighborhood. In our insular Catholic world, hell practically had its own zip code. Every year in school we had to write an essay about what hell was like, how it looked, the people who ended up there, what it would be like to spend eternity in that fiery pit.
For Alison, Jesus vanished the day her brother died; a period began that, if not hell, resembled limbo. Name All the Animals shows the dazed girl drift from age fifteen to eighteen as she struggles with overwhelming loss, isolated from her burdened, distracted parents—they are at once overprotective and oblivious toward her. There isn’t much authorial distance [I modified this view five years later]: narrated by a bereft girl, with scant mature perspective, the story has a poignant immediacy. Smith’s fifty-five short to middling-length chapters move the book like a freight train, largely because each ends with a hook. Scenes cross from one chapter into another, or a chapter opens by musing upon a character we’ve just seen in action before entering another compelling scene. Smith makes this seamless narrative look easy, and always keeps the timeline clear, but she has said that writing the book took her six years.
Gradually Name All the Animals (the title is a biblical allusion) brings into painful focus how Alison’s loss has colonized her life. It is also a portrait of her parents; her Catholic girls’ school; her quirky classmate friends; various nuns and lay teachers, mostly sympathetic figures who in many cases provide comic relief. We’re privy to her growing rebellion and to her disordered emotions. Alison’s quiet but deepening self-destructiveness and her forbidden sexuality (which leaps from sweet attraction to passion to scandal and turmoil) within a chaste, deeply conservative culture provoke linked crises that make this book impossible to put down.
Name All the Animals is a book to savor, for although it’s driven by a strong unfolding narrative, Smith pauses within it. She lingers on a facial expression, the weather, the feel of an ordinary school day, her neighborhood at night. And so the book breathes, deeply felt, and achieves a rare resonance.
[See also my discussion of Smith’s memoir in my post “The Wiser Narrator.”]