On Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘Only the Animals’
Dovey’s superb story collection is full of meaning, emotion, and thoughtfulness from the first-person viewpoints of dead animals.
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Colette and I have always been interested in mules, perhaps because we consider ourselves hybrids of a sort, never quite able to fit within the boundaries of our sex or species, always feeling we’ve a smudgy, mongrel character. It’s this very quality in mules that makes them so appealing. They get their vigor from being half horse, half donkey; they are courageous and full of stamina. And of course she and I identify with the refusal of mules to be anything they don’t truly feel themselves to be. Humans tend to call this bad manners or lack of respect for authority, but I call it the highest form of authenticity.
(“Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat and I,” p. 27)
Short stories are a fickle genre of literature. Though tied together by a mutual theme, the general rule is that there will be a few that one falls in love with, while the rest are dismissed. I had much the same mentality when I began Dovey’s Only the Animals, expecting the formulaic approach in structure and theme, the same reincarnation of it in each story. When that turned out not to be the case, it was easy to understand why this was so: these stories were not “short stories” in the typical definition of the term, though the book was not a “novel,” either, per se, following this same familiar logic. Only the Animals surprised and pleased me right away in its attention to structure and detail, the stories organized chronologically per the year when each animal died, beginning with the camel in 1892 in Australia, and ending with the parrot in 2006 in Lebanon. The characterization of individual stories as slivers in a specific time and location usually isolates them, creating a freeze frame that is then difficult to budge and connect with other events, as some novels demonstrate with the persistent, choppy use of the flashback device. Dovey masterfully avoids this problem by presenting the reader with something more like a ten-course meal — the reader is aware that there is a recommended order in which the stories should be read but is equally free to dapple and jump around, trying any dish he chooses first, as each one is meticulously written.
The animals chosen in these stories are ones with which most readers will be familiar, from the household cat and dog through to the more exotic camel and slightly unusually chosen mussel. The backdrops against which the animals are presented are also familiar in their scope, if not in the specific details. Considering both of these things, one might expect the stories to be, then, familiar and repetitive, if not even cliché. But Dovey has the reader fooled, for that is nothing like what I discovered within the pages of this book.
Although I had my favorites (the soul of the cat and of the tortoise being the most memorable and emotionally touching for me), and while I did think some stories were weaker than others (the first and last stories, for instance, had a rather strong feeling of being bookends, despite their desire not to be), the collection as a whole was superb, to say the least. The stories are not emotionally charged chastisements in written form, despite the impression given by the plot summary. In fact, they are delivered in what I’d call a “neutral tone,” a “story for story’s sake” that allows the reader to relax and ease into the story through personal interest and attention to the course of events. This makes it easier to feel touched by the death of each animal, to smile or scowl at their words wherever the reaction is appropriate. The point of the stories isn’t to extract meaning so much as it is to create it, returning to the old-fashioned concept of listening to stories and feeling like your whole world has been swallowed by the words in that instant, like nothing exists beyond the verbal borders that have been created before your eyes.
There are grains of wisdom and thought-provoking lines found in each story, whether rooted in the plot itself or in the words spoken by the characters. Take, for instance, the following example — though the story is situated in 1987 in Mozambique, the words could easily have been uttered in the streets today, with a slight tweak to the wording, and still applicable, which makes their impact doubly chilling:
‘We don’t make distinctions between our geographic lineages’ she said. ‘We believe all elephants share a common ancestor, which makes us all kin, no matter where we live.’
(“I, the Elephant, Wrote This,” p. 156).
One can approach these stories as being stories told by an animal in first person, in most cases, although the words of the dolphin in her letter to Sylvia Plath raise this exact question when discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes, disproving this very ideology. The book is very self-aware in general, throwing out these specks of insight and details that, when noticed, make one stop and think: such as the fact that several of these animals are females, most of them mothers, while one (the cat) even makes an assertion of her sexuality through mentions of preferring she-cats. It’s not so much the case of forgiving, then, when the stories make blunders, like how the camel sounds the most human of all the animals. Rather, it becomes a point to spring from into further discussions and thoughts, connecting it to the already complex web of emotions and thoughts that ooze from the pages.
I happened to, in a rare instance of curiosity, read the acknowledgments section for this book. My eyes fell upon the interesting phrase where Dovey thanks two people for their support, “and for not reporting [her] to the madhouse when [she] sent them a manuscript filled with talking animals.” I found this to be a perfect point with which to wrap up the book, for it struck me as rather sad that we have come to the point of dismissing speculative works as something childish or somehow abnormal for the mind to conjure up. These stories are some of the sanest I have read in a while, filled with emotion and thoughtfulness that is laid before the reader like a zookeeper who enters an animal’s enclosure with food. It isn’t thrown into one’s face as much as it is placed, relying on the reader’s patience and curiosity to fuel the hunger and to propel one toward the path of self-discovery.