On Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals

The title of Ceridwen Dovey’s new book is snipped from an essay 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 the branch of ethology known as anthrozoology, the aim of which is to study the relationship between humans and animals throughout history and across cultures. Only the Animals takes up that task but gives it an intensely 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: the literary equivalent of that creatural 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, inter alia, the tale of a camel killed in colonial Australia, of a cat killed on the Western Front, and of a blue mussel killed in the conflagration of Peal Harbour. 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. In terms of narrative, each story is self-contained; but in terms of emotional and philosophical resonance, each is far richer 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.

It should be pointed out that 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 anthropomorphic projections; each expresses itself in human language but is granted its creatural autonomy. ‘My mother didn’t tell me much about her experience in Vietnam,’ says a Dolphin in the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, ‘but I could sense wordlessly some of what she went through because of certain physical stress pivots throughout her body.’

That last sentence comes from ‘A Letter to Sylvia Plath’, which, like all ten stories in the book, pays tribute to a particular author. Perhaps the best tribute I can pay to Dovey is to say that her name, though unusual in one sense, looks perfectly at home next to those of her influences.

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First published in The Monthly.