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

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