Sarah Falkner - Obsession may be the only way of pinning down the truth. Synthesizing primal experience, postmodern theory and political metaphor in narrative that is somehow beautiful, fluid and witty as it is enlightening

Sarah Falkner, Animal Sanctuary, Starcherone Books/Dzanc Books, 2011.

"Animal Sanctuary meditates on the making of one's own meanings through repurposing, inverting and detourning the structures imposed upon us--particularly investigating how gender, species and art are performed."

"A wild and mysterious novel of multiple characters and episodes structured around the life and career of a fictional actress and animal rights activist, is the winner of the 7th Starcherone Fiction Prize. The manuscript was selected by novelist and short story writer Stacey Levine.
Animal Sanctuary is a challenging, readable, powerful, and mysterious novel. The story—not a single plot, but multiple, peripherally connected episodes and discourses - concerns an American actress, Kitty Dawson, who stars in two movies by a famous (and famously obscure) British director, Albert Wickwood, both having animal disaster themes. Kitty then goes on to make a great many other pictures with animal themes, and to found in the 1970s a sanctuary for big cats that rich people decide first to have as pets, then abandon. Later, Kitty's only son, Rory, raised in the animal sanctuary and as a young teen the lover of a renowned Austrian big cat trainer, becomes an installation and performance artist whose work incorporates animals & animal themes, as well as attempts to critique and get outside of institutions.
Other plotlines concern a would-be revolutionary who also serves as Kitty's body double in a film in Africa, the career of a cinematographer whose specialization is "shooting" animals, and reflections on understanding the ethics of human-animal relationships. The book as a whole becomes a series of meditations on making one's own meanings from within those structures others place us in - the effort of striving for freedom, the enclosures that keep us from attaining it, and yet the beauty and necessity of such efforts. Throughout, Falkner's prose is smart, versatile, and frequently beautiful.

In commending Falkner's achievement in the novel, Stacey Levine said: "Sarah Falkner creates this work with a deeply-hued palette, incorporating specific notions of film theory, film stardom, visual art, human relationships (which in this text have no magical edge and are burdened by insanely difficult moments), and the ways in which animals are held under human control. Animal Sanctuary is an intensely focused, ambitious work with a wonderfully insistent sense of obsession. The novel brings together weirdly disparate elements in the same surprising way that life does. Returning continuously and seemingly helplessly to animals as a point of reference, Animal Sanctuary suggests that obsession may be the only way of pinning down the truth. This is a rich, interesting, multidimensional book that knows fragility and maps it."

"In a stealthily affecting reportorial voice, debut novelist Falkner tells the story of tepidly successful 1960s movie actress Kitty Dawson via interviews, critiques, press coverage, and plot summaries of her movies (one involves packs of rampaging dogs, another giant mutant rabbits). Kitty’s intensifying affinity for animals inspires her and her husband to open a California sanctuary for abused and neglected “exotic big cats.” We’re also granted glimpses into the lives of Kitty’s body double, a college student searching for a missing friend while on location in Africa; director Albert Wickwood, a clever and cutting variation of Alfred Hitchcock; and Kitty’s son, Rory, a spiritually oriented performance artist. Other pieces in this brilliantly analytical, ironically funny, and tenderly empathic scrapbook novel illuminate curious parallels between hunting and filmmaking, the ethics of nature documentaries, the suffering of lab animals, discrimination against immigrants, the commercialization of art, and how movies “function in place of fairy tales and myths to shape what you fear and hope for.” Stylistically fresh, culturally lush, intellectually exciting, and elegantly emotional, Falkner’s provocative, surreptitiously beautiful novel dissolves the boundaries between animals and humankind, racial and ethnic groups, and men and women and reminds us that we can all “give and receive and be sanctuary.” — Donna Seaman

"In its first half, Falkner's unconventional, multi-layered, and well-crafted debut, winner of Starcherone's Prize for Innovative Fiction, tells the story of Kitty Dawson, an aging actress in the 1970s who, after working with animals in many films, creates an animal sanctuary for endangered lions and tigers. The second half, set in the present, concerns Kitty's son Rory Dawson, and his career as a conceptual artist. Readers learn about the characters though chapters such as "Some Mentions of Kitty Dawson in National and Local Press" or "Some Publications in Which Rory Dawson is Mentioned." Secondary characters emerge in the loose narrative, including Catherine, Kitty's on-set body double. In a chapter titled "Nature Films," readers meet Albert Wickwood, the director who gave Kitty her big break, via a press interview that's interrupted by italicized text of Kitty speaking with her therapist. In a later chapter, one of Rory's grant applications is juxtaposed with italicized commentary from an unnamed assistant in his workshop. The assistant's criticism of him and the art world in general culminates in her claim that "he cannot see that he is in fact one of many bricks in the wall of the temple of art; he helps build, maintain, and support these oppressive structures." - Publishers' Weekly

"Sarah Falkner's Animal Sanctuary is a delicate and beautiful book. It is so perfectly structured, the language so carefully chosen, that upon being read it feels as though it takes place in the memory of the reader. While Animal Sanctuary maps the human world, it also maps the interstices of human and nonhuman animal interactions. Few books have successfully explored this space--Melville's Moby Dick comes to mind, and more recently Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream. Animal Sanctuary is gorgeously different but it too successfully wanders here--and for this reason alone, it is a necessary book. It is also a haunting book. Kitty Dawson still exists inside of me, and outside of me as well. She is in the world and I miss her." - Jennifer Calkins
"Of all the insanely smart people I know, Sarah Falkner is the person whose mind I most wish had an academic curriculum. Her writing performs a kind of impossible alchemy by synthesizing primal experience, postmodern theory and political metaphor in narrative that is somehow beautiful, fluid and witty as it is enlightening." - Cintra Wilson