Voice of souls: Only the Animals

Interestingly, I almost didn’t pick up Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (Penguin). I had a lot of books on the go when it hit my desk, and I really wasn’t quite sure about the premise – a book told from the point of view of dead animals? Still, the book’s cover brimming with wandering green cats piqued my interest, and so racing out of the house one morning I grabbed it, starting it on the way to work. I’m so glad I did, what a treat!

only the animalsOnly the Animals is a strange endeavour:

The souls of ten animals caught up in human conflicts over the last century tell their astonishing stories of life and death. In a trench on the Western Front a cat recalls her owner Colette’s theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany a 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…

… An animal’s-eye view of humans at out brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best, 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.

I’ll admit to being a little fearful that the book might be a little didactic, a bit preachy. To my relief, Dovey avoids this on all accounts, instead creating a series of short stories that are ‘playful and poignant’. Their comments on humanity – on its writers, its artists, its soldiers and their conflicts – subtly highlight their absurdities without out ever screaming out loud ‘you are wrong, you are misguided, war is bad, bad, bad.’

The stories don’t have to, the message is self-evident. The starving bear in Sarajevo never has to say; ‘War is killing me’, we just know it to be so.The Paris house-cat lost on a World War I battlefield effectively illustrates the horror of the frontline, its brutality against humans and quadrupeds alike. The sharp wit of dolphin Sprout, daughter of Blinky, draws our eye to the travesty of conflict, the ridiculousness of justifying abuses in the name of protection. This done through recollections, not lectures.

I’m a fan of short fiction, so I thoroughly this collection of skilfully constructed stories. Linked by theme, each story picks up on a new time period. We’re guided through each period by a unique voice – a chimp, a bear, a dog or a tortoise. Dovey cleverly captures authentic animal personalities. She has a deft touch, and her characters are dealt with sensitively and often quietly humorously. Each tale is written in a style suitable to their time, none more so than the story of the soul of a mussel (died 1941, United States of America) written as a Beat tale…

In the morning, looking bloated with too much seawater, her gills not functioning so well anymore, she said, ‘You stay hungry, boy. You’re onto something. I’ll give you that, living so spontaneous and all, improvising, making it up as you go. It’s the only way to endure this grubby life, turn it into something sparkling. You’ll get there if you can survive this. But there’s no virtue in rushing towards death, remember that. Let the others live fast and die young. You live slow and die old.’

It surprised me how well this worked. I got no sense of parody, it seemed completely appropriate, even if just a tiny bit absurdist.

archyOnly the Animals reminded me many times of the obscure classic Archy and Mehitabel,  a quirky tale by Don Marquis. His story of a cockroach and an alley cat planted itself firmly in my mind after a single read and comes to mind often. Similarly, I think this collection of voices from Dovey will resonate with me for some time. 

You can find out more about Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals here…