A New Novel Captures The Heart Of California

With Kept Animals, Kate Milliken has painted a stunning portrait of a state, with its scars in the foreground.

From upstairs, I have a view into the breezeway of the barn. The moon’s so big and high it’s casting shadows and I can see our collie, Lulu, drawn large against the walking path. She is tender-footing her way toward the foals, pressing her nose to the cracks between the stalls, as if to reassure them that they are not alone. Every animal, Mama used to tell me, knows the sound of another animal’s suffering.

I have, of late, been drawn to California novels. Though I’ve lived in New York since 2015, I, like many transplants, long for my imperfect home, the place where I didn’t fully realize my roots were quite so deep until I’d ripped them from their rich, west coast soil.

Kate Milliken’s magnificent debut novel, Kept Animals, is a brutal, necessary depiction of the state, as if it wrenched its heart out and displayed it, still beating, cupped in one palm. It’s a riveting, disturbing portrait of girlhood, from which society often demands cruel sacrifice before hurtling it into adulthood. It’s a mirror for a culture that elevates diversity while allowing violent bigotry to disguise itself before striding into the party all dressed up, a handgun tucked into the back of a pair of expensive jeans.

It’s also a profound profile of three girls wrestling with identity, broken families, and love.

On the morning of November 2, 1993, just a half mile up the road from where my mother was working as a stable hand, a fire started in Topanga Canyon, California. Fueled by Santa Ana winds gusting sixty miles an hour, the flames raced down from the canyon’s summit — jumping switchbacks, bursting open chaparral, swallowing manzanita whole — and reach the Pacific Ocean in record time.

…They’ve never known who to blame.

In 1993, Rory Ramos is a teenaged ranch hand in Topanga, California, riding and caring for rich people’s horses at the horse ranch managed by her heavy-drinking stepfather, Gus. Though Rory, as a working class employee on the ranch, doesn’t typically socially mingle with the wealthy who stable their horses there, she eventually catches the eye of June Fisk, a rich, talented teen rider with a cocky, dangerous twin brother, Wade.

After Gus is involved in a deadly car accident near their home, Rory becomes close with her neighbor, Vivian Price, the beautiful, alluring daughter of a movie star. Rory’s relationships with Vivian, June, Wade, and Wade’s skinhead best friend Johnny become passionate and fraught, until a horrific fire rips through Topanga Canyon, flattening thousands of homes and changing Rory’s life forever.

The novel jumps between Rory, Vivian, and Rory’s daughter Charlie, looking back at the events of that fateful fall twenty years later. Their voices are vividly realized and distinct: Rory’s is meticulous, serious, level, Vivian’s capricious and impassionated, and Charlie’s first person narration is contemplative, melancholy, lonely.

She brought her hand to her throat, feeling that blithe tug — as easy as a shoelace drawn clear from its hole. The Santa Anas, they say, can make you feel as if you’ve been skinned, every inch of you a raw nerve ending. Gus, she thought. Wade. Vivian. Her mare. The edges of her vision pricked with light.

These characters — their voices, their motivations, their needs — are crystal clear, with minimal exposition to get there. The setting, too, benefits from Milliken’s judicious use of description; I can picture the way the road leading up to the Price’s and Rory’s house whips around a bend, the dusty path leading into the ranch, Vivian lounging beside the pool, her mother standing behind the sliding glass door leading out onto the pool deck as Rory watches from her roof up the hill.

Kept Animals is astonishing in its thorough, precise place setting, its sensitive character building, and its plot that unhurriedly creeps towards a shocking conclusion. I don’t think I’ll be able to forget Milliken’s Topanga Canyon, or Rory, Vivian, June, and Gus, for a very long time.

Kept Animals by Kate Milliken comes out April 21. Buy it on Bookshop, and find it on two of my Bookshop lists: Absolute, Number One All-Time Faves and Great Novels of California.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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