The stories in Ceridwen Dovey’s inventive new collection are set in three centuries, and they take place in Australia, Europe, Africa, America and outer space. Yet for all the continent hopping and time traveling she does within these pages, Dovey’s boldest gambit has to do with her narrators — none of which is human.
“Only the Animals” concerns the inner lives of a highly articulate assortment of wild and domesticated creatures. The 10 tales in this book are told from the perspective of brainy reptiles, caged birds, itinerant invertebrates and trustworthy canines. Even a mussel gets his say.
A young writer who grew up in South Africa and Australia, Dovey has daringly shrugged off the constraints of conventional fiction. These stories are alternately funny and distressing, and while she’s aware that this sort of thing has been tried before — the book namechecks previous efforts by Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell — Dovey conjures new ways of thinking about species that are subject to humanity’s whims.
Each story delivers an emotional punch, and most make idiosyncratic allusions to literary history.
In “Psittacophile,” a parrot called Barnes — named for “Flaubert’s Parrot” author Julian Barnes — describes a tumultuous life in Lebanon. An American expatriate has adopted Barnes, and in 2006, amid fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, they’re trapped in a Beirut apartment. During a lull, Barnes and his owner venture outside, and as the story concludes, they make their way back to the pet store, where the bird can’t bring himself to fault his companion: “What choice did she have but to hook my cage to the awning overhead and leave as quietly as she could, before I realised I was alone?”
“A Letter to Sylvia Plath” is authored by a dolphin whose admiration for the late poet stems from their shared outlooks on the nature of mammalian life: “You took enormous creaturely satisfaction in food, in sex, in smells, in your own body and its workings.” Her missive makes the case for a little more interspecies respect: “We have put our own bodies between you and the lurking shapes of sharks. We have swum very gently with your young, with your impaired. We have greeted you with leaps.”
In “Plautus: A Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space,” a tortoise recounts an existence alongside the famous and influential — he’s a font of gossip about the Bloomsbury Group and other English writers — and a curtain-closing stint as a research animal aboard a Russian spaceship. Orbiting his home planet, he poetically reflects on the pain he felt and witnessed during his long life: “After the first blast of creation, we were all left homeless, every creature on earth.”
Meanwhile, although he’s headed for a tragic end, the mussel that narrates “Somewhere Along the Line” is an amusing presence while he’s around. The story takes its title from a line in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” so it’s no surprise when the chatty bivalve evinces the spirit of the Beat Generation. Recalling a trip he made after attaching himself to the bottom of a battleship, the mussel says: “The whole goal was detachment, gathering no algae, freewheeling.”
In “Only the Animals,” Dovey has tried something audacious. Aiming to see the world anew, she’s crafted an unusual and beguiling ode to the feathered, the four-legged and the fearless creatures of the sea.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.