I come back to Animal Dreams again and again, so many times now that I must know it by heart. It is about loss and memory (and loss of memory) and belonging, even in a place where you thought you never belonged. The two intertwining stories as told by Homero and Cosima Noline, the father living in his memories of the past even as Alzheimer's shreds them until past and present are blurred. And Cosima, his older daughter, who left this town of Grace as soon as could and has only now returned to care for her father, who has forgotten all the people in this town, all her memories of this town, even though they remember everything about her, until the memories come flooding back as she puts the pieces of her family's past together.
As soon as I read the opening pages I feel the prickle of tears behind my eyes, as Homero gazes at his two daughters, "curled together like animals whose habit is to sleep underground, in the smallest space possible." I used to sleep that way, coiled tightly into a small corner of the bed, and when I read these words I flash back to my own childhood. But I never had a sister, never had the feeling of being so tied to someone else emotionally that it was like having a a twin "attached at the back of the mind." Hallie is the sister who left, who went off to Nicaragua to fight for something she believed fiercely in, and Codi (Cosima) is the one who came home to teach Biology to high-schoolers, students that she sees as reflections of the teenager she was.
I have written before how the words of Barbara Kingsolver make me weep, how they twist my heart until I can barely see the page for tears. The one part that of Animal Dreams that has stayed with me clearly for all this time is the conversation that Codi has with her father, where they discuss heartbreak. "Why do you suppose the poets talk about hearts? When they discuss emotional damage? The tissue of hearts is tough as a shoe," says Homero, "The seat of human emotion should be the liver...that would be an appropriate metaphor: we don't hold love in our hearts, we hold it in our livers." Since the first time I read these words I have always thought of a broken heart more as a broken liver, a wounded liver, "an organ with the consistency of layer upon layer of wet Kleenex. Every attempt at repair just opens new holes that tear and bleed. You try to close the wound with fresh wounds, and you try and you try and you don't give up until there's nothing left."
And yet against the pain and loss and memories of the past there is hope for happiness, of reconnecting with old friends from childhood, of finding love the second time around. Most of all, there is the realization that after feeling like an outsider for all her life she is as much a part of Grace as anyone else. And that it is home.