***Winner of the Prix du Livre Inter***
***Winner of the Prix Alexandre-Vialatte***
You don't know whether you like animals but you absolutely must have one, you want a creature. This is one of the earliest manifestations of your desire, a desire all the more potent because it remains unfulfilled.
—From Where Do All the Reindeer Go?
Where Do All the Reindeer Go? is a novel, but the book really exists at the crossroads of fiction and documentary profile. Olivia Rosenthal uses the unusual form to explore an uncommon pairing: the human quest for identity and the human relationship to animals.
Where Do All the Reindeer go? starts in the narrator's early childhood—when she asks the title question after Christmas—and continues into her adulthood as she seeks, and finds, the answers to questions she has asked about herself, society, and animals.
In one way, the novel is the coming-of-age story of a woman who grows up within the boundaries of society and then manages to emancipate herself from its imposed limits. In another way, it is a scientific and legal exploration of animals in captivity, considering fascinating and wide-ranging aspects of their world from how to transport a rhinoceros to the limbic system of a mountain goat. A third narrative uses the voices of people who come into contact with animals: veterinarians, farmers, breeders, trainers, and butchers. As they speak, their descriptions of how we handle animals are, at times, eerily reminiscent of how we treat our fellow humans. We learn about experiments that can advance science but also benefit hunters; we hear about the pro-animal militants who seek the release of animals. The narratives blend, each leading us and the narrator to questions, answers, and freedom.
The story of the young woman and her desire for escape from something she does not understand is primary to the book. The narrator's liberation takes place in stages. In the first stage, a young girl who knows only that she wants a pet, preferably a mammal, is denied the animal companion she craves. In the second stage she reaches adulthood, conforming to society, is educated, and, as expected, is married. As she grows, we see her torn between fear and desire to be free. She becomes afraid of heights, she wonders about her sanity, and considers suicide. Increasingly she identifies with the domestic animal: highly trained, shut up, pampered, fed, cared for, and often ignored. In the third stage of her development, on a business trip, she meets a woman, becomes her friend, and begins to understand the limits of her life. The two women become lovers and her true journey of emancipation begins.