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Novel of a family's harsh desert life is flawed but powerful

The odd thing about the title of Aryn Kyle's much-anticipated debut novel, The God of Animals, is that there doesn't seem to be a god of animals.

The odd thing about the title of Aryn Kyle's much-anticipated debut novel,

The God of Animals,

is that there doesn't seem to be a god of animals.

At least not a kind one, and at least not on the Colorado desert ranch where 12-year-old Alice Winston and her troubled family try to eke out a living and prop up their multiple layers of falsehoods, half-truths and secrets.

It's a harsh, sometimes savage book. People lie, they cheat, they beat horses. A schoolgirl drowns.

Alice herself is a loner who spends her evenings mucking out the stalls.

Alice's sister, at age 17, eloped with a rodeo cowboy. Her father is uncommunicative, almost abusive, encouraging Alice to lie and, at one point, leaving marks on her neck, where he has grabbed her in anger.

And Alice's mother? The least-believable character, she has confined herself to her bedroom - watching television with the sound turned off - ever since Alice was born 12 years ago. She doesn't go outside; she doesn't even come downstairs, except when the grandparents visit and the family wants to appear normal.

Alice tells those who ask that her mother is "tired," that she has cancer, or that she was killed in a boating accident.

How can this be? How could the mental welfare of such a woman be so completely ignored? How could no one see how it might affect her daughter? Even poor families have some access to psychological care. At the very least, in such a small town as this, wouldn't neighbors or churches or school officials take note and attempt to intervene?

This anomaly bothered me and kept pricking at the novel's credibility.

Nevertheless, it was a powerful experience - probably more so on the audio version, recorded by Simon & Schuster, with Broadway actress Lily Rabe narrating.

The recording is available in a multitude of formats, evidence of the publisher's belief that The God of Animals will be a big title. Simon & Schuster offers it both abridged (6 hours) and unabridged (11.5 hours), both on CD and as a downloadable "eAudio." (Prices range from $17.95 to $39.95.) Recorded Books offers the same recording, unabridged, on cassette, on CD and as a rental.

Hearing something instead of reading it - especially something as raw and discomfiting as parts of this novel - escalates the emotion for me.

It's equally powerful to listen to Kyle's intense and vivid writing, rich with detail. Characters pause to lick lemonade off their fingers or take a sip of beer or shoot a sidelong glance during conversations. I could almost taste the dust and feel the rain.

The novel marks a debut for narrator Rabe as well as Kyle. I'm unaware of any other books she has narrated, with the exception of a bit part in Many Ways to Say I Love You: Wisdom for Parents and Children from Mister Rogers.

The story is told in Alice's young voice, and Rabe is utterly convincing. She conveys youth and a waning innocence without making Alice seem too precocious. She's a master at transmitting Alice's confusion, sorrow, loneliness and desperation. And, finally, her anger.

The novel grew from Kyle's 2004 short story, "Foaling Season," which won a national magazine award. She thought she was finished with the family, but Alice haunted her imagination. Like so many authors of powerful books, she let the character dictate the novel, writing it to find out what would happen to Alice as time passed.

The amazing thing about the Winstons is that through all the ugliness, the characters continue to love one another, even as they continue to hurt one another - sometimes on purpose.

Alice, who takes to calling an equally isolated English teacher every night for long philosophic conversations, wonders what love is, and how you know when you're in love.

Kyle's book is an eloquent answer.