Nov. 2, 1993. The fire, now known as the Old Topanga Fire, started at 10:45 a.m. and burned until Nov. 11, spreading to the city of Malibu. Three people died.
Topanga Canyon is not where the story of Kate Milliken’s debut novel “Kept Animals” begins, narratively, but it is where we are taken as Charlie, the daughter of Rory Ramos, reflects on the fire that changed her mother’s life forever. So much so that she fled to Wyoming, where Charlie is narrating her current circumstances.
Charlie’s first-person narration is interspersed between vignette-style chapters narrated by multiple characters in Topanga Canyon leading up to the day of the fire. Rory is one of these characters, 15 years old and a loyal, hardworking ranch hand at Leaning Rock, where her stepfather Gus is the stable manager. In between her work, she rides her own horse, Chap. Rory cleans and tends to the horses of “barn brats,” rich kids who ignore her — until they don’t.
And so the drama begins. Rory unexpectedly strikes up a friendship with out and proud lesbian June Fisk. June’s cruel twin brother Wade coincidentally strikes up a romance with the girl that Rory watches from her bedroom window, not knowing what to make of her feelings: Vivian Price, the wealthy, tortured and beautiful daughter of a movie star.
Rory’s story, backed by a chorus of thousands, unfolds against a setting so richly developed, it is as if the Santa Ana winds themselves are turning the pages. Milliken’s economical but beautiful prose transforms her novel into an atmospheric and bittersweet love letter to the drylands of Southern California, where the Santa Ana winds, as Milliken writes, “Can make you feel as if you’ve been skinned, every inch of you a raw nerve ending.”
Indeed, there are many raw nerve endings in “Kept Animals,” one being Rory’s emerging sexuality and her coming to terms with being attracted to women. Queerness is weaved in seamlessly, treated as a fact of life while simultaneously staying realistic relative to the time period of the 1990s. It is one of those rare literary gems that is about a queer character without being about the queerness itself.
The characters themselves are like nerve endings, too. Each of them is complex and damaged in ways that, bit by bit, start to come together and form the broader picture. Without exploiting their self-destructiveness in melodramatic manners, Milliken keeps her sullen characters on their toes at all times, trekking toward the blazing conclusion.
The heart of the story rests in the humanity of its characters, especially its two unwitting heroines: Rory and Vivian. The collision of their two worlds is what leads to the ultimate tragedy, with Rory’s humble upbringing a foil to the life of extravagance and whim that Vivian lives. Yet the two are always in close proximity to one another, and by the end of the book, their fates are inseparable.
Rory and Vivian aren’t the only characters who get to claim the spotlight. Gus’s narration takes up a sizable portion, granting insight into the adult world of Topanga Canyon that Rory and Vivian, try as they might, cannot fully understand. And by flooding readers with details, but only of the pertinent kind, Milliken manages to give fleshed out faces to even the most minor of characters.
Like life itself, “Kept Animals” traverses many roads: class and racial privilege, mental illness, horse breeding and war photography, to name a few of many. Milliken tackles all of these areas with an oft-unmatched confidence, and with the subtle hand of a writer with many gifts up her sleeve. “Kept Animals” is filled with the kind of compulsively turnable pages that exist mostly in dreams, but here, Milliken has turned that dream into a reality with an explosive, impressive debut.