Barbara Kingsolver‘s novel Animal Dreams marks the fourth and volume in my self-imposed Kingsolver minimarathon, which I started after the book club girls and I chose Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as September’s pick. Like The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven and The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams was a reread for me; however, unlike the other three, Animal Dreams is a book that I’ve returned to time and time again.
Set in the mid-eighties, this is the story of Codi Noline, who has returned to her hometown of Grace, Arizona, to both teach high school biology and to care for her estranged father Doc Homer, who is battling Alzheimer’s. Animal Dreams focuses almost entirely on Codi and is told from her point of view, though her chapters are occasionally broken up by a few pages detailing Homer’s increasingly entangled mind. Codi struggles with this, along with her sister Hallie’s life-altering decision to live and work with local farmers in Nicaragua after the country’s revolution. Codi and Hallie’s relationship is almost impossibly close, so much so that Doc Homer, in the novel’s opening, acknowledges concern:
He feels a constriction around his heart that isn’t disease but pure simple pain, and he knows he would weep if he could. Not for the river he can’t cross to reach his children, not for distance, but the opposite. For how close together these two are, and how much they have to lose. How much they’ve already lost in their lives to come.
Codi unknowingly proves Doc Homer right; even as she finds the possibility of love and learns exactly how far the branches of her family tree reach, her thoughts are always on her sister.
Something I find compelling about Animal Dreams is Kingsolver’s choice to have Codi narrate her chapters from the future; her portions of the novel are her recollections, and even she acknowledges it, starting off her narration with “I am the sister who didn’t go to war. I can only tell you my side of the story.” Yet, in spite of this, Kingsolver gives the reader multiple chances to look at Codi through another’s eyes with Doc Homer. So, does this make Codi fall into the category of “unreliable narrator”? Does this make her untrustworthy? Of course not — everything she says and feels and does is completely honest and genuine, and by giving Codi the gift of hindsight, Kingsolver creates a more complete character. Codi is flawed and she recognizes it as only one can with the sort of distance provided by time.