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An intensely stirring coming-of-age memoir by Alison Smith, Name All the Animals brilliantly explores the power and limitations of a family's faith. Smith was 15 when her older brother, Roy, was killed in a car accident, and her memoir follows her family as they attempt to put their lives back together. Her parents try to take comfort in their strong Catholic faith but are nonetheless shattered. For her part, Smith wonders why God has abandoned her. She finds cold comfort in Catholic symbols and rituals, feeling a connection to Roy only when she enters the old fort they had built together.
An engaging storyteller, Smith crafts her memoir to read like a novel, interspersing moving flashbacks of the times she spent with her brother with amusing portraits of the nuns at her parochial school, who sneak out of the infirmary to play cards and make autumnal visits to a secret swimming pool. As a child, Smith wonders why her father blesses her and Roy every morning, touching a relic to their foreheads, mouths, and hands, mentioning each individual body part. "He's got to name us, like Adam named the animals," Roy explained. "To keep track of them." The near impossibility of "keeping track," and the changing nature of faith are just two of the poignant messages in this unforgettable debut.
(Winter/Spring 2004 Selection)
Roy remains real throughout the book, invoked at well-chosen intervals through memory and through his sister's acts of devotion. (She saves food for him. She regards even his worn-out running shoes with tenderness and reverence.) And the idea of punishment for her transgressions is equally substantial, giving the reader a sense of how much was at stake for her as she tried to regain her bearings. "Hell was a real place for us, as real as the next neighborhood," she writes. "In our insular Catholic world, hell practically had its own ZIP code." Janet Maslin
In her first book, Smith, an alumna of the Yaddo and MacDowell writers' colonies, confidently weaves together aspects of a traditional coming-of-age memoir with a story of unimaginable loss. In lucid, controlled prose, she meticulously reconstructs her family's journey through the three years following her 18-year-old brother Roy's death in a car accident, just weeks before he was to start college, in 1984. Despite their overwhelming grief, Smith's devout Catholic parents' faith does not waver, but the 15-year-old Smith grapples with her beliefs. "I thought perhaps it was my fault that Roy had left us," she writes. "I thought I was being punished for some unknown sin." A student at a Rochester, N.Y., Catholic high school, Smith can't express her doubts, nor can she reveal her romantic feelings for one of her schoolmates, a less sheltered girl who introduces her to Colette and van Gogh. And even though Smith becomes exceedingly thin, her mother and father fail to notice she's anorexic. Name All the Animals (the title refers to Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden) includes many vivid images, although some of the language can seem too pretty and composed. The book closes with the third anniversary of Roy's death. "If I lived past the summer of my eighteenth year," Smith resolves, "I would have to face that Roy died and that I the little sister, the tagalong... would surpass him." It's a brave ending to an impressive debut. (Feb. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
This compelling memoir recounts the effect on a teenager, and her family, when her beloved brother and companion dies. So close are the siblings that their parents call them by a combined nickname Alroy (for Alison and Roy). Their parents are devout Catholics, and they live in a close-knit neighborhood. Roy is heading for college, and Alison, at 15, is working part time in the convent running the antiquated switchboard. This contented home is shattered when early one workday the police arrive to say that Roy has been killed in an accident. With no one thinking of therapy, Alison is left alone to grapple with her grief. Believing that she can bring Roy back if she feeds him, she stops eating and shares food with his ghost in a nightly ritual. People treat her as the "girl whose brother died," an excuse for almost any behavior. Even when Alison begins a love affair with a fellow female student, the result is trouble for her friend and not for her. Smith subtly, and without judgment, presents the actions and behaviors of her family, teachers, friends, and herself during the three years following Roy's death. A powerful story told and read with great skill by the author; highly recommended.-Kathleen A. Sullivan, Phoenix P.L. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School-The Smiths were a close-knit Catholic family living in the suburbs in the early 1980s, but their lives were so insulated and defined by the Father's devout observances that they had the innocent quality of a much earlier time. Alison, 15, and Roy, 18, were so close that their parents referred to them as Alroy. When he was killed in an automobile accident, his sister lost more than a brother; she lost her identity as well. The whole community joined the family in their grief for this popular teen. Denial was a way of life for the Smiths and, in their well-meaning zeal to protect their daughter, the news clippings of Roy's death and the factual closure they might have provided were kept from her. This compelling memoir, told with disarming wit in spite of the grim circumstances, is eloquent, funny, and moving. Readers will relate to the social scene of an all-girls Catholic school, delight in the tricks played on the faculty, and applaud Alison's ultimate self-knowledge and victory over depression and anorexia.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
An impressive debut memoir of grief and growing up. In 1984, when the author was only 15, her 18-year-old brother Roy was burned to death in an automobile crash. Her struggle to come to terms with this loss and find her way again is recounted here with a clear eye and astonishing frankness. Smith’s parents were staunch Catholics; not to believe in the existence of God, she writes, would have been like not believing in "oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." With her brother’s death, Alison’s faith suddenly vanished, to be replaced by study and reading. If only she could understand how space, time, light, and movement were linked in the fourth dimension, she believed, Roy would come back to her. Smith’s parents, however, clung to their faith; her father still blessed her each morning with a holy relic to keep her safe. The author’s observations of her parents’ reaction to the loss of their only son are marked by a cool objectivity and filled with telling detail. Inexplicably, they seemed to be unaware that their grief-stricken remaining child was starving herself and wandering outside at all hours of the night. Smith’s mother, it seems, was an expert at rewriting the past and pretending that unwanted events did not actually happen. At Sisters of Mercy High School, the nuns overlooked Alison’s strange or out-of-line behaviors. When she fell in love with another girl and the two of them were discovered in bed together, only her companion’s reputation suffered. The nuns and her classmates saw Smith as "the girl whose brother died," more to be pitied than censured. For months before the third anniversary of Roy’s death, the tagalong little sister, now 18 and not wanting to surpass herbig brother, planned to reenact the accident, following him into death. Her attempt failed, her appetite for life returned, and Roy finally became a ghost figure for Alison, if not for her parents. Powerful, unsentimental, candid, and moving.
"Alison Smith has written a beautiful, completely unsentimental memoir so full of love and sorrow and the stuff of everyday that you live in it as much as read it."
"Stunning...[a] story of survival and sexual awakening."
O, The Oprah Magazine
"Smith writes with such assured distance that this quiet examination of grief reads more like biography than autobiography, and displays a novelist's gift for revealing character."
"Makes time stand still and your coffee go cold beside you."
Elissa Schappell, The New York Times Book Review
"Sometimes a friend will ask you about a book you've read and everything you say winds up sounding inadequate. Name All the Animals is that kind of book....This is the story of my life, too, told so I finally understand it. Which, in the memoir department, means that it is pretty perfect."
Anna Quindlen, Book-of-the-Month Club judge, writing in BOMC News