Review: Sacrificial Animals

Kailee Pedersen's debut novel, Sacrificial Animals, is a lyrical and unsettling supernatural horror-thriller about the violent legacy of one Midwestern family. When Nick Morrow reluctantly returns to his abusive father's home, he must face not only the memories of his past, but also his brother, Joshua. Yet what none of them expects is that the real reckoning at hand may not be with the father both brothers obsess over, but with Joshua's enigmatic and alluring wife.

Second son Nick doesn't believe a deathbed reconciliation with his brutal father, Carlyle, is possible. But when Carlyle's estranged favorite, firstborn son Joshua, decides to return despite having been disinherited years ago for marrying an Asian woman, Emilia, Nick can't resist the summons. He's surprised to find Emilia is as young and beautiful as ever, and Joshua, whom his father seeks to reestablish as his heir, is still as easily swayed by his father's favor. The longer Nick stays, the more his childhood memories haunt him. And as his attraction to Emilia grows into an affair, he entangles himself further into the family history he wanted to escape. Emilia's ominous beauty simmers beneath it all, her eerie calm hinting that her seduction hides something menacing.

Pedersen's prose is both poetic and raw. The novel has the cadence of a classical tragedy while being addictively propulsive. Nick's melancholic memories paint a vivid picture of a life that is frost-bitten, wood-splintered, and full of a tightly maintained rage. Yet there's a tenderness, too, in Nick's memories of his short-lived affair with classmate Henry and his longing for more gentleness in a world of grit. Sacrificial Animals is extraordinary for its illumination of unexpected empathy, and it suggests that the catharsis of vindication is never simple.

Based in part on the mythos of the American Midwest and in part on Chinese mythology, Sacrificial Animals infuses the fading, sepia-toned image of an American family saga with a more complex understanding. At first glance, Nick, Joshua, and Carlyle form a holy trinity of white male angst, but Emilia's magnetic presence disrupts their cycle of martyrdom. She claims the role of agent of destruction, making their downfall less predictable if no less inevitable. This is perhaps the best part of this genre-bending literary novel: the experience of reading it is as variable as it is fated. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Shelf Talker: A genre mashup of Chinese mythology, supernatural horror, thriller, and Midwestern family drama, Sacrificial Animals is a breathtaking upending of the American family saga.

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