May 2014

Arts & Letters

Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘Only the Animals’

By Richard King
Penguin; $29.99

The title of Ceridwen Dovey’s second book comes from a quote by Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.” Sax is an author and academic with a particular interest in anthrozoology, which is the study of the relationship between humans and animals throughout history and across cultures. Only the Animals takes up that task but gives it a poetic twist. The result is a strange and beautiful work that turns Sax’s rather sphinx-like aphorism into something like the Great Sphinx itself: a literary equivalent of that hybrid with squashed human features and chunky paws.

The book comprises ten stories, all of which feature an animal that meets its death as a result of human conflict. Thus we are given, among others, a camel killed in colonial Australia, a cat killed on the Western Front and a blue mussel killed in the conflagration of Pearl Harbor. The stories are narrated in the first person (or first camel, first cat, first mussel, etc.), and come down to us, so to speak, posthumously: it is the souls of the animals that disclose themselves. Each story is self-contained, but each is far richer – in terms of emotional and philosophical resonance – for its proximity to the others. To put it another way: Only the Animals is a perfectly integrated work of art brilliantly disguised as a collection of short stories.

These stories are not fables; their protagonists are not allegorical figures and no plonking morals lie in wait for the reader. It is, above all, the relationship between people and animals that interests Dovey, and though many of her protagonists are ill used by humans, the sense that the benefits of animal–human interaction may be mutual comes through loud and clear. (Red Peter, a chimpanzee, to his handler: “You made me a better human, and I would like to think – dare I say it? – that I made you a better ape.”) Nor are Dovey’s animals purely anthropomorphic projections; each expresses itself in human language but is granted its creatural autonomy.

Each of the stories in Only the Animals pays tribute to an author (or authors) who happened to write about animals themselves. The camel is accompanying Henry Lawson, the cat belongs to Colette, the mussel’s story is told in the style of Jack Kerouac, and the chimpanzee is lifted from Franz Kafka’s short story ‘A Report to an Academy’.

Perhaps the best tribute I can pay to Dovey is to say that her name looks perfectly at home next to those of her influences.

Richard King

Richard King is a freelance writer based in Fremantle. He is the author of On Offence. His website is The Bloody Crossroads

From the front page

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

In This Issue

Detail from St George and the Dragon (circa 1435), Rogier van der Weyden

Knights and the old republic

Tony Abbott's aggressive monarchism

Time and transition in Sophie Hyde’s ‘52 Tuesdays’

A new Australian film poses intriguing questions

Who is the ordinary reasonable person?

The trouble with repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act

The return of the Tichborne Claimant

A recent play resurrects a 150-year-old case of imposture


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Detail from cover of Elena Ferrante’s ‘In the Margins’

A writer unfolded: Elena Ferrante’s ‘In the Margins’

In an essay collection, the mysterious author of the Neapolitan novels pursues the “excessive” to counter patriarchal literature’s dominance


More in Noted

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

Still from ‘Slow Horses’

‘Slow Horses’

A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’

‘The Golden Cockerel’

Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances


Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?