The Beast Is an Animal by Peternelle van Arsdale
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2017, 352 pages
With a dark and witchy feel akin to the Salem Witch Trials, The Beast Is an Animal is a debut novel by Peternelle van Arsdale (and what a name — both the title and author!). I first heard of the YA fantasy in an episode of Book Riot’s All the Books with Liberty Hardy and Rebecca Schinsky and it sounded amazing. After two sisters and their mother are banished from a town for suspicion of witchcraft, the town feels the effects. Years later, seven-year-old Alys is found wandering in the fields by a traveler. When he returns her to her home, he finds her parents — along with all townsfolk over the age of fifteen — have perished. Alys and her young townmates are adopted by families in a nearby town, but the suspicion grows over the newcomers and Alys, especially. While Alys resists the pull of the two sisters who have found their way into her life, she must reconcile her murderous feelings with her love for her adoptive family.
The Beast Is an Animal begins with a fascinating and atmospheric concept, but it’s an atmosphere that just can’t be sustained for hundreds of pages — at least, not the way van Arsdale tells it. Alys spends a good portion (nearly half) of the book as a child and, consequently, her thoughts and understanding of the world around her are limited by experience and knowledge. Though there is so much potential to dive into various ideas about human nature and cruelty, van Arsdale can barely scratch the surface with her young character. Even as Alys ages, something about her lack of exposure to the world outside her village seems to limit her ability to consider the deeper implications of her actions and the actions of those around her.
Van Arsdale is, perhaps, just being subtle. There are moments in the novel that reach a deeper understanding and payoffs here and there. These often come in the form of meticulous prose. As a book editor by trade, van Arsdale’s strength is very obviously in the language, which is fairly consistently beautiful, interesting, and haunting. Her prose, however, cannot carry the basic lack of plot alone. Though Alys clearly has a predicament, what she really wants is unclear throughout the novel. A last-minute love interest seems to be a thing of plot convenience and motivation more than something natural, and Alys hardly has enough personality to warrant a realistic relationship.
Alys isn’t alone in having little personality. Few characters in the book do, the primary of which being Pawl, who discovers her as a young girl wandering in the fields. It is later in the novel, especially, that he and his wife feature in an especially poignant way, driven by their taste for alcohol and drunkenness. This particular trait makes Pawl one of the most interesting characters as it is so at odds with his cheery personality. Not many characters qualify as prime players — instead, a blurry mish-mash of villagers make up the antagonistic forces in Alys’s life, along with the sisters and the beast itself, who, while a fascinating idea, is not well developed and instead rather superficial and without much impact.
Ultimately, van Arsdale has something here, both in concept and in ability to write. The Beast Is an Animal falls short with a plot that doesn’t stand strong in its structure nor urges readers forward with momentum, purpose, or stakes. My expectations for The Beast Is an Animal — and I still can’t get over that striking title — were, admittedly, high. This might be better read around Halloween and might even make a fascinating class assignment alongside The Crucible or A Break with Charity. Fans of All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry might find similar elements in The Beast Is an Animal and enjoy it, to an extent, but van Arsdale’s first attempt is not quite a hit.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤