Cover of book: Only the Animals

Ceridwen Dovey
Only the Animals

Two stories into Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, my heart began to sink. I thought that this collection of 10 thematically linked stories, told mainly by the souls of animals killed in human conflict who had close contact with or were inspired by a major writer, could hardly be more ungainly. I saw it as a kind of Watership Down meets The Lovely Bones, with literary cameos to satisfy the smug. 

The first two souls, a camel and a cat, were anthropomorphised beyond incredulity. The first famous writers, Henry Lawson and Colette, were devices to lecture and opine. Dovey was expecting us to believe dialogue weighed down with exposition and to sympathise with the death of a cat in the trenches of World War I while thousands of young soldiers were dying around it.

I thought I would regretfully be writing a negative review of a young Australian writer, published by a major imprint. 

By the third story, the glorious “Red Peter’s Little Lady”, however, I realised I’d read the first two stories wrongly and needed to start again from the beginning. I’d entirely misjudged Dovey’s intent. She wasn’t expecting us to believe anything. Writer 1, reviewer 0.

The problem was this: I was mired in Australian fiction of the type that Patrick White called “the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism” and I was unprepared for the anarchic brilliance of this wonderful book. Yes, the protagonists are dead animals. Dovey persuades us of her characters as she teeters on the edge of sentimentality, but in the next breath she dances back and Only the Animals becomes a kind of conversation that anticipates the reader’s – at least, this reader’s – response and parries it. 

The difficulties that troubled me in the first two stories (anthropomorphism, our alternating empathy and callousness towards animals, the role of writers and literature in giving voices to animals, the writerly manipulation of readers’ empathy, among others) are exactly what she examines. And it is an examination: there is palpable restraint on the page and Dovey draws no conclusions. Only the Animals is a glorious imaginative leap, not into the minds of animals, but into our own. 

The idea that fiction can be both playful and intelligent should not be so surprising. Dovey’s animals read and write and think and sometimes pity us. They are more human (and more humane) than we are. Some of the stories are sorrowful: “I, the Elephant, Wrote This”, where a loving family of elephants believe their souls will join the stars after they are killed by villagers, is deeply moving and left me gasping. “Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me”, where Myti the mussel experiences a Kerouac-inspired counterculture adventure, is almost jolly. 

The most successful of the collection (by a nose) is “Plautus: a Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space”, where the eponymous tortoise is owned by Tolstoy’s “ornamental hermit” and passes through the hands of Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and Tom Stoppard, before inveigling herself in the Russian space program and circling the moon. It’s layered and astonishing and far and away the best thing I’ve read this year. Dovey has a particular talent for mixing exuberance and melancholy in the one story without tonal jerks or jars, and this story sparkles on the page. 

I laughed out loud when Plautus interviews a returned cosmonaut dog, Ugolyok, who describes the stresses of being cooped up in a small capsule for 330 earth orbits with another dog. “If Veterok touched my toy ball,” Ugolyok says, “I just couldn’t stand it, it became a really big deal.” 

By the final line, I was stilled by the thought of Plautus after takeoff in his “cold little cabin, for all those solitary hours flying across the night ocean”. It’s beautiful writing, but besides that, it’s enthralling. Most writers don’t generate this much genuine emotion over the course of an entire career.

There are stories about dogs loyal to the point of delusion and dolphins misled by devious humans, a parrot (named Barnes, after Julian) living and dying in Beirut during Israeli air strikes, and an almost-human chimpanzee in love with his trainer’s wife. (The chimp writes plaintively that she “made me a better human, and I ... made you a better ape”.) There are stories within stories and literary allusions underneath direct quotes from the likes of Plath, D.H. Lawrence and Douglas Adams. It’s clever work, but it’s never tricky for the sake of it. This kind of writing is the fictional equivalent of walking a high wire without a net. 

Commenting on the individual stories, though, is missing the point. As a collection, Only the Animals works as a journey into empathy that, for all its ideas, never neglects the basics of fiction: showing readers in beautiful words compelling characters who do fascinating things.  

Writers who state their intentions baldly can be arming critics with a stick. Plautus the tortoise, who lives with Woolf while she is writing Flush: A Biography, her imagined life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, is quite the literary critic. She doesn’t approve of Woolf’s prose “when the tone veered toward the ironic, tongue-in-cheek style that humans seem to adopt automatically when writing from the perspective of an animal”. Indeed. Plautus considers Flush to be “a cheeky book, certainly, provocative even ... but that didn’t mean it couldn’t also be moving”. 

This might have been Dovey’s manifesto. To get away with that kind of self-referential nudging, the work has to be very good and the writer, very brave. Only the Animals makes much contemporary fiction seem stodgy and grey, and Dovey has put everything on the line here. It’s a remarkable achievement.  LS

Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Ceridwen Dovey, Only the Animals".

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Reviewer: LS

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