Well Read – Animal

Lisa Taddeo
(Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99, 336 pp.)
Helen Brown 

“I am depraved. I hope you like me,” says Joan, the heroine of Lisa Taddeo’s blood-soaked debut novel: Animal. In chapter two she explains that what others see as her “sociopathy” is the consequence of “a dark death thing that happened to me as a child”. She promises to tell us all about that, but after she’s told us about her own crimes, and in a way that will allow us to withhold sympathy. “Or maybe you won’t have any sympathy at all. That’s fine with me.”

Widely reviewed as an “American Psycho for the #MeToo generation”, Animal includes graphic events including the rape of an elderly woman, a forced abortion and a late-term miscarriage that leaves the expectant mother covered in blood and holding the foetus in her hand. Most arrestingly, this is a story that the narrator is telling to her infant daughter. “I want you to know you were born of a tender union,” says Joan. “It was meaningful in the bedroom if nowhere else. And it was the first time I used a man for something I actually wanted and not for something I thought I needed.”

Waving merrily at me over a video link from her kitchen in Connecticut, Taddeo tells me she’s been taken aback by “how shocked” some critics have been by the book. “I had thought the world of fiction was more cool,” she says. “So the primness was surprising. But then I am realising that the world is divided between the people to whom quite a lot of awful stuff has happened and those to whom it hasn’t. I’m not trying to deny the experience of people who’ve lived trauma-free lives, but I do get angry when they try to deny the fact that some of us have lived darker, more gothic lives.”

She tells me that even her editor “questioned whether I should include the rape of an elder in the book? They thought that was outlandish,” she sighs. “Well, my grandmother was raped when she was in her 70s. I’m talking about my father’s mother, it happened in the US. A stranger broke into her home and that event marked my childhood in a way it’s taken decades for me to understand.”

Born in New Jersey in 1979 to Peter Taddeo (an Italian-American doctor) and Pia (an Italian fruit seller), Lisa Taddeo lost both her parents in her twenties. “My father died in a car accident when I was 23 and then my mother died of cancer,” she says. “I was left feeling like I’d been mauled by a tiger. I lost other people, too. It got to the point where I didn’t want to get close to anybody for fear they would die.”

Taddeo first made headlines in 2019 when she released the non-fiction best seller Three Women: an investigation of female desire written after the author had spent eight years driving across the United States, interviewing women about their sex lives. In the end she focused on the stories of three women, using intimate, novelistic prose to pull readers deep into the emotional lives of her subjects. Maggie described the intense and damaging relationship she had with North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year when she was a teenager. Lina, a married mother in her 30s, recounted the details of an affair with an indifferent ex-boyfriend after her husband refused to kiss her. And sleek Sloane, in her 40s, spoke of sex with other men and women while her husband watched.

In Taddeo’s prose, one of Sloane’s threesomes plays out as: “A wife who closes her eyes to the first move. A third person who has eaten nothing all day. Someone turns on the music. Someone pours a drink. Someone reapplies lipstick. Someone positions her body in such a way. Someone is less hurt than he should be. Someone is afraid of her carnality. Someone is worried about not being sexual enough. Someone lights a candle. Someone closes a French door. Someone’s stomach drops.”

Many readers loved the raw energy with which Taddeo explored her subject. Arousal, power, abuse, trauma and judgement were constant pressure points. We were regularly reminded to park our judgement and listen because: “Women shouldn’t judge each other’s lives,” she wrote, “if we haven’t been through one another’s fires”, adding, “one inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.”

This same charge was laid at Taddeo’s by one British reviewer who dismissed Three Women as “voyeurism disguised as virtue”. “Yeah. I saw that,” she nods, still perky. “But I think we are all voyeurs when we go into a book or a movie. I have never wanted to hide my voyeuristic soul. But voyeurism is a fraught word and maybe I see it more as… curiosity? Who isn’t interested in other people’s lives and what other people hide?”

Taddeo says she wrote Animal as the thesis for her MSA in Fiction at Boston University, so it was completed while she was working on Three Women. “So I can’t tell you how much of the research for one book ended up in the other. I can tell you that I was driven by anger about what I was hearing from the women I interviewed, and anger I felt over losing my parents.”

In an essay on anger published in last month’s Guardian, Taddeo wrote that: “When a man acts in anger, we step aside, but a woman gets labelled ‘crazy bitch’. What I’m interested in is why we’re not interested in what happened right before such-and-such a woman acted like a crazy bitch.” Or, as she tells me, “how trauma leads to this rage. I yell all the time. I yell at my lovely husband [screenwriter Jason Waite] and occasionally at our daughter, Fox. I open the front door and yell into the air.”

Joan’s narrative was inspired partly by the real story of Lisa Nowak: the NASA astronaut who, in 2007, filled her car boot with tools and drove 900 miles from Houston, Texas to Orlando, Florida, to confront the woman who’d won the affections of an astronaut that Nowak had also been involved with. “She wore a diaper the whole way. She wouldn’t even stop to pee,” says Taddeo.

Wearing her dead mother’s dress, with both her parents’ ashes in the car, Joan also takes a long drive from New York (where she’s just witnessed an ex-lover shoot himself) to Topanga Canyon in California on a path that leads to murder.

“I lived there for a year,” she says “and it’s completely different to the rest of Los Angeles, so stifling and beautiful. It’s in the clouds at the top of a mountain, so the heat and the steep drops are intense. There are coyotes and rattlesnakes and it’s so wild. The place is so far from civilisation if feels like it’s behind a trapdoor.” It’s the perfect setting for Taddeo’s heightened, nightmarish tale, which reads as though it’s inspired as much by the heat-hazed cinema of David Lynch and David Cronenberg as by other books.

“Oh yeah!” grins Taddeo. “I’m a big film buff. I grew up watching age-inappropriate movies with my mother because she didn’t have any friends. I remember watching Carrie as a kid and loving that. I love films that take us behind the curtain. I still want to high-five any film where a character goes to the bathroom. I love films that show the reality of being a woman, like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, where the star has to remove a tampon before having sex.” Like Arnold, Taddeo stresses: “I’m not trying to shock. I’m just reporting back from the depths.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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