Tuesday’s Reviews – The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

animation, books, debut novel, friendship, reviews, well written, women

Way back on New Year’s Eve 2016 I posted my list of most anticipated novels of 2017. On them was this debut novel by Kayla Rae Whitaker about two female friends and business partners. It sounded amazing and the reviews suggested it was something to pay attention to. I bought it not long after it’s release at the end of January but didn’t actually start reading it until well into February. At first I sailed through it and couldn’t get enough. I was on holiday so had time to indulge myself and read chapters at a time without any real worries. However, those of you paying attention to my recent That’s What She Read rundowns will know that it took me a long time to finish the novel. The last few chapters just took me ages to get through but I’m happy to say that I finally got to the end last week. It was a great day and I can now get on to one of the many other books that have been piling up for weeks. As I have not watched anything new this week and because I haven’t done a good old fashioned book reviews in ages, today’s review is going to be a rather terrible overview of this book. Apologies in advance.

The Animators is a novel that is concerned with relationships; or at least with one specific relationship. It tracks the first meeting of Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught and follows their journey from art school students to the creators of a surprise hit film and beyond. Sharon and Mel are both from the rural south and have difficult family histories. They also both share an intense passion for weird and trippy cartoons, having spent their childhoods escaping reality in front of their television screens. As we have so often seen before, their pain is channelled into a more creative stream as they discover a love of drawing. After meeting in class, the two women form an intense friendship and, thanks to their combined talent and compatible personality traits, form an unstoppable working partnership. Mel is the front woman; the showman who gets the ideas started, enjoys the party and flakes out on the responsibilities. She is the fun loving one who would rather spend her nights combining drugs, alcohol and loose women than preparing for panel talks or interviews. Sharon is the sensible one who worries about things and tries desperately to get her friend to stick to the schedule.

Skipping over their formative years, we catch up with the pair as their first feature length animation, based on Mel’s childhood years, has become a smash hit and everyone wants a piece of them. Everything looks set in place for the duo to become stars until a series of personal tragedies befall both women and they find their relationship challenged to breaking point. Although, somewhere within the chaos comes the inspiration for their next project. When Sharon remembers a childhood trauma that had long stayed hidden, Mel pushes her to confront her demons and examine herself and the choices she has made. The novel asks the questions ‘how can you move past a harrowing experience before you possess the maturity to understand and process it? Sharon begins to understand that for much of her life she has been running from the darkness she uncovered as a child and, using her creativity, plans to find the light in amongst it all.

Depsite taking me a fucking age to finish, The Animators is a really well written book. Whitaker has a great ability to write realistic and readable dialogue and she has created a beautiful friendship between two complex and interesting women. She takes an idea that has been used before (the road to fame and the inevitable soul searching that comes with it) but gives it a new spin by filling it with damaged and recognisable women. The characters of Mel and Sharon are both perfect. It offers a genuine dynamic between two modern women where neither are forced to live up to the expected ideals of femininity. The two women are comfortable around each other in a way that you don’t often seen represented accurately. It is a tender but difficult relationship that, as a reader, you can’t help but adore and worry about.

However, there are some aspects of Whitaker’s novel that highlight the naivety as a debut novelist. There is a lot going on in this novel and the author attempts to deal with a variety of issues. Quite frankly, she tries to do too much and doesn’t quite pull it off. Motifs and messages are repeated several times so you kind of feel as though you’re being beaten around the head with the moral of the tale. Sometimes things start to feel disconnected and subplots are given greater focus than they deserve. Just when you think everything has been thrown at this book already, the writer comes back with something new. There are times when the pace drags and it becomes something of a slog. It is a testament to Whitaker’s writing that you want to carry on regardless. It’s not a problem but an age old trap that so many first time novels fall into. Whitaker’s story just about has the strength to pull itself out before the narrative comes to an end.

My major gripe for this novel, however, is the constant need to describe sequences of animation in great detail. I understand that the art in question plays a key role in the story and the lives of the characters. However, there is something discomforting and unappealing about reading vast descriptions explaining what’s going on in both real and imagined animated films. I understand that Whitaker (as well as her two protagonists) are both animation nerds but it felt kind of unnecessary to share an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of cartoons. That’s almost a Simon Pegg level of showing off.

Still, I really enjoyed The Animators. It was a great read by a new writer. It was a confident, funny and intelligent debut that has only made me excited to read more by Whitaker in the future. To say that it had flaws is not a problem. If trying too hard and being too eager to please is something to get worked up about then there is something wrong with us. I mean really, if you edited down some of the middle section to make it a little less indulgent then I’d definitely be more than happy.