When was the last time a main element played a central character in a book you were reading?
In Kate Milliken’s debut novel, “Kept Animals,” fire — or more specifically, the foreshadowing and memory of one — is the central event that changes the lives of the characters in this story. But you could also argue that earth is also integral to the storyline, from the foothills and canyons in which Rory, June and Vivian live to the ranches where Gus lives and works in the past, with his stepdaughter Rory, and the present, with his granddaughter, Charlie.
I’m not sure from which “Read this book” list I pulled this — only that it was earlier on in the pandemic and I was loading up on library requests. Never a horse owner but always a fangirl, I knew I’d enjoy a story about a girl and her animals, but wasn’t expecting to be pulled in by some pretty poignant storytelling.
There’s a lot of pain between these pages, but also love. Coming of age. Redemption. All the good stuff that leaves you feeling satisfied when you close the cover on the last page.
Narrated by Charlie in the present, and Rory, her mother, in the past, the reader is invited into Rory’s world as a 15-year-old growing up in Topanga Canyon, California. The daughter of a barmaid married to a man 10 years her senior, Rory has grown to love and care for Gus, who works at a local horse ranch. Over time and unbeknownst to the “barn brats” Rory has become a stellar rider in her own right, and is equally talented with a camera.
It’s these two talents that lead her life to intersect with June and Wade, teen twins at the ranch, and with Vivian Price, a remote canyon neighbor to whom she becomes tragically connected on multiple fronts.
Milliken also leaves ample room for a story arc with Gus, whose alcohol and anger management issues blur a tender heart. I think so often, in today’s news cycle, it’s easy to forget that most people are truly multi-faceted. And that even those who have made mistakes are capable of greatness.
There’s a lot to break down in Kept Animals that ultimately (and maybe unfortunately as well) is incredibly timely — climate change, sexuality, violence against women, racism, socioeconomic inequality. Fire is tragic. But it’s also cleansing. Maybe there’s a bit of karma in the Topanga Canyon fire. It may have been nature’s way of erasing more than one tragedy. All that said, if you believe in little miracles, the ending is worth the wait.
Milliken takes great care in weaving these lives and these stories together into a beautiful story about the resilience of the human spirit. The pacing is perfect and the transitions between the 90s and today feel seamless. I loved it from start to finish and am left wanting more of Rory’s story. And Charlie’s.
One of my favorites this year — don’t pass it up.