Animalia: A Novel

Written by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo
Review by Kristen Hannum

It takes all of a few paragraphs into Animalia to begin to suspect that the book might be a masterpiece. By the end of its first couple of sections, set on a small family farm in the southwest of France in the years 1898 to 1917, there is no doubt. Animalia is a kind of brooding, poetic Dr. Zhivago of pig farming, a brutal Lord of the Flies version of James Herriot’s gentle vision of raising livestock.

Both horrifying and exhilarating, it opens the curtains on the dark side of farm life, both before industrialization and after. Its first two sections show how fiercely hard and comfortless life was in the old days, with religion offering a harsh and pitiless refuge. Éléonore, a baby, a girl and then a young woman in those sections, is the grandmother for the final two sections, set in 1981. She is the matriarch of a world where her son and grandsons have commercialized the operation, seeing death as “spoilage” and losing a daily battle against the “faecal tide created by the pigs.”

The author, a winner of the Prix Goncourt for a debut novel in 2009, wrote Animalia (Le Règne Animal in France) after visiting an industrial farm. Seeing the animals in pens so small they could barely move and lying in their own filth, Del Amo became a vegan and activist for animal protection. That makes it sound as though Animalia might be an example of that notably awful type of fiction: something written to prove a point.  It isn’t. This is a beautifully written novel of pity, mercy and sorrow. And, in the end, it gave me a window of hope for a better world. Recommended.