Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Book Review: 'Only The Animals' by Ceridwen Dovey (No 2: Short Stories)

Book Cover:  Only the AnimalsFirstly, Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey has a fabulous name. Secondly, she came up with a wonderful concept for a short story collection: her 2014 release of ‘Only The Animals’ has 10 pieces narrated from the perspective of animals who have lived and died during historically important events. The narrators include a camel spending a night by campfire with Henry Lawson, French writer Collette’s cat prowling the trenches in World War One, a bear trapped in a pit in Sarajevo Zoo during the war, a dolphin trained by the US Navy to detect and place mines during the Gulf and Iraq wars. Narrating from an animal’s point of view draws on a long tradition but the death of the animals due to their engagement in historical events - such as the wars, or being a ‘guinea pig’ on a space flight as does Tolstoy’s tortoise (‘Through the porthole, on the way to the moon, I saw the earth. It was just as the dogs had described it, a glassy illuminated marble’) or the runaway dog of Himmler, banished and left to fend for himself after showing a stranger more affection than his master – gives this a fresh twist on the concept.
The collection touches upon a great deal of big ideas, and the literary references are many: the dolphin narrates a letter to Sylvia Plath ‘By far my favourite parts of your journals and poems are the insights you share into the quicksand, joyous minutes and hours and days and weeks and years of mothering’ and a wonderful mussel caught at Pearl Harbour (surely one of the few mussel narrators in literature?) takes on the beatnik style of Jack Kerouac ‘Blue mussel larvae, the real drifters, latched onto our hull at some point in our journey. One of them grew into a real beautiful girl with golden threads who Muss had a diggy thing for but she was more interested in me’. Dovey shows thorough research of places, time, people and animal characteristics. Her style is formal, the language elegant, and there is much story telling within the pieces, such as the fables told by the animals of their ancestors. Some images are truly lovely, and poignant:  the elephants noting ‘We held a formal farewell ceremony before they left, making a ring with our bodies close together, breathing in the smell of our kin’;  ‘The black bear did not speak again. On an icy day at the end of October, he died with his paws wrapped around the brown bear’s ribcage, holding it close against his body’; and ‘As the sun begins to shade the sky a pale lemon, the soldier will return, shuffling on his stomach with the blinking tomcat tucked under one arm, both of them so covered in mud they could be two bits of the same mythical beast’.
However, as a whole collection I could put the text down and not feel the need to return quickly: I didn’t connect with the stories in their entirety but rather individual phrases and ideas. Reflecting, I wondered whether the collection was too clever for me, too full of lofty references. I don’t think that was the case. Then I wondered if it was the animal narrators - and I realised that I was not a great fan of animal narrators as a child. My brother loved ‘Wind In The Willows’ and ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, and others of that ilk – but despite the fact that I was the more avid reader, I preferred the childhood stories with people at the centre of the action, and usually, pure realism. So perhaps while I fully understand the greater meaning of anthropomorphism, it may not be a style in which I can engage. It’s not you Dovey, Dahl, Grahame, Orwell – it’s me.

*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014


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