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.
Name All the Animals has been on my TBR list forever. I’m not even sure how it landed there–it predates Goodreads. So when I pulled it out of my jar, I wasn’t super thrilled to read it, for any other reason than “Great, I finally will get this off my list.”
But, while there are many reasons books make it to my list–of course the main one is–the book just sounds good. And, maybe Alison Smith was just waiting for me to be at the right place in my life to read her book. I wouldn’t have been ready for Name All the Animals in 2005, but in 2016, I loved it.
The summary above, while it sounds pretty intense, really leaves out what this book is truly about. Alison’s brother does die young, and the family is scarred forever. But this is a coming of age story, first and foremost. Through her grief, Smith realizes that just because her family believes something, has always believed it, does not mean that she also has to believe it.
She not only fights with her faith, but also comes to terms with her new found sexuality. The world around her is cruel and unforgiving, but she punishes herself just as harshly.
Name All the Animals is a deeply moving memoir about grief and growing up in a world that sees you as dirty. Make sure to add this to your LGBTQA+ lists! It’s memoir, but it reads like a novel. At points I had to remind myself that, OMG this is someone’s real story…and then I just sobbed harder.