To Leave With the Reindeer
by Olivia Rosenthal
translated from French by Sophie Lewis
I quite like books that are strange and hard to categorise, but I found this a little too weird, or at least too minimal in actual story. It’s certainly ambitious and I’m sure will have its fans.
A second-person narrative describes a woman from early childhood, trying to break free from her mother’s stronghold. One winter she fantasises that after Christmas she will leave with the reindeer, to wherever it is that they go after they have assisted Santa with his work. She desperately wants a pet, a wish that is never fulfilled. When she grows older this becomes a desire to work with animals. Her romantic relationships flounder until she figures out how to complete her separation from her mother.
“The world is a fabric of words; we are completely sheltered and sustained by the simultaneously coercive and maternal resources of the text.”
This sparse, simple, but enjoyable enough, story is interspersed with first-person accounts of the minutiae of working with animals, from vets and scientists to people who work in zoos, circuses and even abattoirs. There is one paragraph of each at a time, which is difficult to follow at first.
The first of these accounts is about reintroducing wolves into the wild in France. The scientist describes the safety measures put in place, from how the animals are raised to the moats surrounding their new territory. It’s pretty clear how this tale of trying to resist domestication relates to the story of the little girl who wants to escape into the wild.
“It’s hard to resign ourselves to making money out of those we love, to making them climb on stools, leap through flaming hoops, climb on top of shiny cars…But living as we do in a mercantile society, in which parents may sell their children, their organs or their blood in order to meet life’s basic requirements, we may assume that the market in wolves represents a lesser evil and stop fruitlessly resisting it.”
I found these first-person accounts hit-and-miss in terms of whether they interested me and/or illuminated the main story for me. Some of them got pretty gruesome – the abattoir, obviously, but even more so the medical researcher who details methods of euthanising lab animals – and as a non-meat-eater who has never agreed with animal experiments, I really did not appreciate the increasingly stretched point being made.
The main story builds to a climax that feels like it is intended as a surprise ending but really didn’t surprise me. And I never warmed to the use of second person. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a novel written in second person (has it ever been done well?). So I think overall I would call this a noble experiment, but one that didn’t work for me.
Que font les rennes après Noël? published 2010 by Editions Verticales Gallimard.
This translation published 2019 by And Other Stories.
Source: I subscribe to the publisher.