Reviewed by Jack Cameron Stanton
‘My body runs ice-cold with the knowledge of all I didn’t see, the things I hadn’t known . . .’
When I finish Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel The Animators I feel as though my heart’s been jammed into a washing machine and spun around full cycle, but even after it spits me out I want to jump back in and go for another ride. This washing machine doesn’t comprise the usual socks, jumpers, or bath towels; it’s packed with heartbreak, tragedy, and convalescence.
It is the story of an animation duo, Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught, who take the world by storm with their inventive, raw, and idiosyncratic style of cartoons. While their animations are heralded as a fine dual-creation, their personalities couldn’t be further apart: Sharon, our focaliser, is quietly ambitious and meticulous, whereas her best friend Mel is wild, unpredictable, and confrontational.
Their breakthrough feature film, Nashville Combat, documents with harrowing honesty the life of Mel’s recently deceased mother – an ugly, unkind portrait at best – and it doesn’t take long for skyrocketing popularity to start unravelling their previously bulletproof friendship. Mel rocks up loaded to a TV appearance and proceeds to humiliate and bully the panelists. She drinks for days without sleep. Rumours surface that Sharon is being held back by her volatile counterpart, causing her to become suspicious, distant. It all seems to be coming undone – until a vicious, unpredictable tragedy strikes, and the friends are forced to bind together again.
So begins the toughest decision of their lives: as animators what is more important – reality, or art? Which one decays so the other might bloom?
In the spirit of wildly popular books such as A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Kayla Rae Whitaker offers a breathtaking glimpse into the madness of a life devoted to art. She accomplishes what all more literary-minded novelists strive for: representing reality with a dreamy sheen, a sense that the stakes are higher, the emotions rawer, and yet alive nevertheless.
Another exciting component of Kayla’s novel is her exploration of the varying levels of love – in this book I’m thrown back to that old adage about turning stones, when it comes to her treatment of love. Sharon and Mel come from loveless pasts – family lives dysfunctional at best, destructive at worst – which only heightens their fondness for each other. But can love become distraction? And can old lovelessness be mended into something new and full? This is tough, of course, because Kayla’s protagonists constantly resist reality, are uncomfortable in its parameters, and, like most artists, feel most peaceful when they’re in love with their work, not others. And for two inseparable best friends, Sharon and Mel are no doubt plagued by the solitude of artists.
Here is the ultimate reason why The Animators comes so highly recommended from me: it reels you in, offering this entertaining world of two friends championing the animation world, exciting with their conflating personalities and growing resentment of each other – then darts elsewhere, with tragedy as its catalyst. It is a story of affirmation, of redemption, and of love. It leaves an afterglow that has you questioning, opening the book to previous sections and seeing whether you had missed something so vital, so painfully obvious by the end, just as Sharon had.
I won’t tell you much more about what else happens, because there’s a certain joy in its unexpectedness; what I will say, however, is that Kayla is erudite beyond her years, and has convinced this humble reviewer to keep a watchful eye for her in the future.