Paul and his wife lead a revoltingly old-fashioned life maintaining the farm that's been in Paul's family for generations. As the owner of the farm and provider to his family, Paul feels it is the pre-ordained duty of his gender to rule the household with priapic, misogynistic strength. His wife is named "Vulva," and although it's unclear if the name is of Paul's doing, it's obvious her presence is appreciated for only a handful of reasons. Despite this unwelcoming premise, Noelle Revaz has created a captivating character study in Paul, and one that takes a surprisingly fresh turn on masculinity and gender studies.
Revaz and her translator both show a revelatory command of language in With The Animals. The book hinges almost entirely on its tone, and Revaz successfully creates a provincial dialect for her narrator Paul that is somehow not condescending but nearly poetic in all its captivating simplicity. Paul is rendered as the basest of manly brutes, and while his boarish and cartoonish way of speaking may seem a fitting gimmick, there's actually much more at work here: through Revaz's finely crafted narration, Paul can be seen actively trying to learn, evolve, and grapple with poignant thoughts just out of reach. To see such a cruel man struggle to express himself almost excuses his actions throughout the novel, and places the reader in a tricky (albeit engaging) position as an onlooker.
Paul's growth lies at the center of With The Animals, but the novel soon begins to feel like a character-study as the book's thin plot flits forward. With the arrival of the farmhand Georges at the beginning of the summer, Paul and his family's simple (and very flawed) lifestyle comes under intense scrutiny in the face of a third party. Just by being present, Georges forces Paul to reflect on his actions and second-guess their appropriateness. Perhaps it's not best to address one's wife as "Vulva," and maybe Georges is being the better man by adding a lyric syllable to her name and calling her "Vulvia". As the summer progresses, Vulva falls ill as something "hard" begins to grow in her belly. What at first seems like a pregnancy blurs into something almost cancerous, which forces Vulva to spend the middle of the novel shut away in the hospital. Paul stays at home with Georges, who politely tries to urge Paul to show some sympathy for his sick wife. Instead, he thinks openly about all the work he can get her started on once she returns. But, deep inside, a spark of empathy and longing seems to glow, even if Paul won't admit it himself:
Revaz very carefully paints shadows of infidelity around her novel. Paul grows increasingly suspicious of something secretive growing between Georges and Vulva, and those readers who consider Paul a misunderstood oaf will likely agree that Paul may be turning into a cuckold. Yet, those who find Paul irrevocably repulsive will enjoy watching him writhe. It's a difficult balance but one that Revaz pulls off: with echoes of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, Paul is painted in such a way that simultaneously repels and attracts.
There is not much more to With the Animals beyond Paul's growth and the slow revision of his masculine identity. As the novel comes to a close, it becomes creepingly obvious that the rest of the novel's cast were there to simply bring Paul through this development. There's no story here besides Paul's, but what's most important (and most memorable) is how that story is told: Revaz's style more than makes up for what her novel lacks in plot. With the Animals maintains an impressive balance between being aurally repulsive and wildly listenable, and manages to tell a simple but important story in a fresh new way.