Only the Animals Synopsis :
In a trench on the Western Front a cat recalls her owner Colette’s theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany, Himmler’s dog seeks enlightenment. A Russian tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War. In the siege of Sarajevo, a bear starving to death tells a fairytale; and a dolphin sent to Iraq by the US Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath.
Ten animal souls tell extraordinary stories about their lives and deaths, caught up in human conflicts of the last century and its turnings. Together they form an animal’s eye view of humans at both our brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best. Exquisitely written, playful and poignant, Only the Animals is a remarkable literary achievement by one of our brightest young writers. It asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals, but for other people, and to believe again in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.
Stories about animals are tricky things. I’m often drawn to them but upon reading my response can be mixed. Our relationship with animals can be a very personal thing – do not get me started on the age-old cat vs dog lover debate – but at a deeper level, the different ways people think about animals and the roles they play in our lives can be divisive in a similar way that racial/cultural tensions can.
Other than the stunning cover art, what particularly drew me to Ceridwen Dovey’s short story collection Only the Animals was its unusual premise – 10 stories narrated by animals that had died as a result of human conflict. For someone that ascribes to Mahatma Ghandhi’s viewpoint that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”, this story collection was never going to be ‘entertaining’.
While the Only the Animals collection met my expectations in respect to it being a moving read, I was surprised at the extent to which I found some of the stories deeply unsettling. From the outset, I connected with the stoicism of the Soul of Camel, Died 1892 in ‘The Bones’ and the profound advice of a ghost pig given to a dog during WWII in ‘Hundstage’,
‘A wise friend once told me that kindness, like cruelty, can be an expression of domination,’ the pig said.
In contrast I really enjoyed some of the lighter moments, the positive personality and ironic observations made by the Soul of Tortoise in ‘Plautus: A Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space’.
Ultimately this collection’s premise and narrative structure provides a stage for many salient observations on human nature. One that really struck a chord with me was this from a woman escaping family breakup in her western life to live in Beirut, in ‘Psittacophile, Soul of Parrot’,
When it came to the past, the selective amnesia of the general population suited her just fine. Their powers of wilful overlooking were something to which she aspired. She marvelled at their ability to ignore palm trees stunted by shrapnel, sandbags still stacked on windowsills in abandoned houses, or the large chunk missing from the side of the Holiday Inn. Denial, she thought one evening, passing a dead horse inexplicably decomposing in the shallows on the public beach, is underrated.
Of all the stories, the one that shocked and unsettled me most of all was that featuring written correspondence between a high-functioning chimpanzee and a woman in WWI Germany, ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’.
They – the humans, that is – seem to think that what sets them apart from other animals is their ability to love, grieve, feel guilt, think abstractly, etcetera. They are misguided. What sets them apart is their talent for masochism. Therein lies their power. To take pleasure in pain, to derive strength from deprivation, is to be human.
There is something about chimpanzees being trained to act like humans that I have always reacted negatively to, and I think this story draws out those feelings quite brutally.
But the story I think will linger longest in my memory is the immensely moving a ‘Letter to Sylvia Plath, Soul of Dolphin, Died 2003, Iraq’. While it can often be entertaining, the true value of high quality literature is its ability to influence its audience and make them interrogate their own beliefs. Having read Dovey’s Only the Animals, I don’t think I’ll use the word ‘humanity’ flippantly ever again.
I am now eager to read this author’s previous novel, Blood Kin.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5 ; Overall 4.25
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Genre: Drama, Literature, Short Stories, Historical
Ceridwen Dovey was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and went to high school in Sydney. She did her undergraduate study at Harvard, and spent a year as research assistant for the current affairs program NOW with Bill Moyers. She wrote her novel Blood Kin as her thesis for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, and has a PhD in anthropology from New York University. She now lives in Sydney.