Name All The Animals, Alison Smith's first book, is a memoir of her family's grief in the aftermath of the death of her older brother, Roy. In the main, it details Alison's own sense of loss and her struggle to cope, particularly in the light of the competing pressures of adolescence, but it is also a portrait of family dysfunction. The writing is unflinching in its analysis of flawed relationships, full of razor-sharp insight and poetry.
Towards the end of the book, Smith states of her home life before the bereavement: 'Our family never fought. We never talked through differences. Instead, there were just silent, restless moments.' For any family, such a scenario would be a recipe for emotional ill health; throw in the appalling trauma of the death of a child and you have the makings of a disaster.
The single most damaging factor in Alison's life after Roy's untimely death is her relationship with her mother. Known to her children as 'Mother', she was once a source of amusement to Alison and Roy for her invented reality: 'She simply erased the bad stuff. If Roy or I said something she did not approve of, she would turn, stare right through us and reply, “You did not say that”.' Roy compares it to Stalin's airbrushing of history, saying to his little sister, 'She's playing Kremlin, Al.' After Roy's death, Mother's 'playing Kremlin' becomes the chief impediment to the family's chances of healing and recovery. It is the rock-hard defence mechanism around which other characters tiptoe, while left isolated with their grief.
The grief for eighteen-year-old Roy, the victim of a car accident, is paralysing in different ways for Alison and her parents. On the day of Roy's death, his father freezes halfway up the stairs and remains seated there for the rest of the afternoon. No one is able to sleep in the weeks and months after the funeral, and Smith's memory of herself and her parents bewildered by their loss, stumbling around the house in the middle of the night, is truly heartrending. Indeed, her prose style communicates perfectly the numbness of shellshock; it is as though winter has set up permanent camp at her home, muffling her world with snowdrifts. Name All The Animals is, in certain respects, a very quiet book.
At her school in Rochester, run by the Sisters of Mercy, 15-year-old Alison becomes The Girl Whose Brother Died, a special case with whom others aren't sure how to communicate. At home, she becomes the sole 'vessel for all of Mother's and Father's dashed hopes'. On a school trip to Canada, Alison and her friend Teresa (Terry) get detached from the main group while out sightseeing. When Sister Daniel catches up with them, it is Terry who is scolded by the nun: 'Teresa, you know Alison has to stay with the group… Her brother died. She's the only one left.' It seems a burdensome identity for anyone to have to carry.
Obviously, none of this is likely to help someone forced to deal with the death of a brother to whom she was so attached. Alison becomes obsessed with the concept of the fourth dimension of time and space, a favourite subject of Roy's. She returns on a daily basis to a fort she helped him build, to study scientists such as Heisenberg and Einstein: 'I looked for the fourth dimension, the marriage of time and space, light and movement. I believed that there was a secret code in it, and if I could somehow break it, Roy would come back to me.' Unsurprisingly, for an adolescent girl so deeply traumatised, Alison develops an eating disorder, bringing larger amounts of her food out to the fort: 'The ritual of it, the deep satisfaction I felt from taking my own nourishment and serving it up to memory, to my dead brother, sustained me.'
A measure of relief comes from her sexual awakening with her friend, Terry. Their clandestine, passionate interaction is recounted with tenderness and pathos. For the first time since Roy's death, Alison has something to live for. Unfortunately, life is complicated by a prevailing climate of suffocating Catholicism, particularly at home. When Alison's mother learns of her taking part in a school debate, promoting the rights of lesbians and gay men, Alison senses the towering force of her mother's wrath: ' “Don't touch me,” she said. She had a plate in her hand. She lifted it and threw it hard against the counter, where it broke, splintered into four pieces. Then she said it: “Don't you know lesbians will burn in hell?” '
Alison's mother's peculiar ability to suspect and deny, simultaneously, the reality of her daughter's sexuality, leads her to arrange dates with young men in whom Alison has absolutely no interest. At one point, Alison tells her mother that a boy has asked her to stay out in his van all night at a concert, to which her mother replies, 'It sounds very nice. Why don't you go?' Later, when Alison is being fitted for a dress, the seamstress takes her mother aside to tell her that something is wrong is Alison, in terms of the amount of weight she has shed between fittings. Mother dismisses these concerns by saying that they are just a 'thin family'. Seen in this light, Alison's anorexia has the symbolic value of allowing her to maintain some measure of control over what she ingests when she has been force-fed so much falsehood.