Noctural Animals (originally published as Tony and Susan) is a psychological thriller – part noir and part meditation on the process of reading. It was first published in 1993 to tepid response from literary circles. Tom Ford, popular fashion designer-turned-director, recently adapted this late Austin Wright book into a movie, which was released earlier this month and opened to rave reviews. Since its re-issuance earlier this year, with a special film tie-in edition, the book has been received with revived enthusiasm.
This enthralling book is a fiction within fiction, with something to say about love, revenge and retribution. Susan Morrow is a middle-aged woman with kids and a part-time English teacher. She has been sent a manuscript by her ex-husband, Edward, of a novel he has written. He is flying down to meet Susan in a couple of days and wants to know her thoughts on his book. Susan is wary of this gesture from Edward, since their marriage didn’t exactly end on good terms; she has always been sceptical about Edward’s writing prowess and hadn’t really been encouraging about his writing aspirations while they were married.
Susan is an avid reader and considers reading as an integral part of being civilized. Still, she postpones reading. Wright brilliantly captures the love-hate relationship readers have with books because to the sheer authority that they command.
“Books always resist her at the start, because they commit so much time. They can bury what she was thinking, sometimes forever. She could be a different person by the time she’s through.”
As Susan starts reading the draft, the readers are thrust into a sinister, fast-paced thriller about a family trip that quickly turns into a harrowing nightmare. The story revolves around Tony Hastings, a maths professor, and a late-night drive with his wife and daughter, while they are going to their summer cottage in Maine from Ohio. While en route, Tony makes the mistake of engaging in an altercation with some menacing men on a dark road. This leads to abduction and violent consequences for his wife and daughter.
The most interesting aspect of the book is that as the reader becomes engrossed in Tony’s story, so does Susan. Wright deftly depicts the thought process of a reader while he is reading fiction; the anticipation, bewilderment and conjecturing regarding the plot which the reader engages in, as well as the random speculations we sometimes embark on about the person who has written the words we are reading. Here, Susan is in a rather catch-22 situation as she used to intimately know the writer. She keeps trying to compare Tony, and later, the writing with the Edward that she knew. She second-guesses the narrative tricks he employs and wonders about the motivations he might have had while writing some of the grittier plot twists.
Wright successfully manages to maintain the distinction of the two stories. Susan’s passages are characterized by a contemplative, fluidly written prose, while Tony’s (who is reeling from the tragic aftermath of the accident) are disjointed and erratic. As Susan proceeds to read the manuscript, she gets nostalgic and goes back to remembering and re-evaluating her life with Edward. The book is essentially about the heights a person would go to to avenge his family’s honour. It’s also about redemption and the thin line between civilization and crude violence.
While Wright does a great job at portraying the two distinct protagonists, I did feel that the connection between Susan’s own story and that of Tony was quite tenuous. Also, since the book was written in the early 90s, readers might struggle with some major obstacles that Tony faces while trying to track down his family, which could have easily been avoided by modern day technology.
Nocturnal Animals is a cleverly written, neo-noir psychological thriller with a multi-layered narrative that works on many different levels. If you are a fan of metafiction or unconventional fiction then you would love this piece of engrossing writing.
Nocturnal Animals – originally titled Tony and Susan – was published by Atlantic Books on 3 November 2016.