A pair of ragged claws
I HAVE just finished a remarkable book, Only the Animals, by South African-born Australian writer Ceridwen Dovey. In 10 self-contained yet emotionally and philosophically connected stories, the souls of 10 animals tell us about their lives and deaths, often as a result of human conflict such as war, always as a result of human actions. The opening story, for example, is told by a camel who accompanied Henry Lawson on his trip through drought-ravaged NSW in 1892. It’s a tale that will make you rethink the thoughtless phrase beast of burden. Indeed, each of these finely written stories nudges us towards greater empathy with our fellow animals, from the lowly mussel (in a hilarious aquatic reimagining of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) to the lofty dolphin (who writes a salty letter to Sylvia Plath).
Yet Dovey is not preachy — far from it. Her animal’s eye view of the human-dominated world is funny, pragmatic and often sympathetic. And she never forgets that animals are animals: when a bear in one story, talking to a woman, starts going on about use of animal metaphor in human writing, another bear interrupts with: ”So do you know what human flesh tastes like?”
Famous animals from life and literature are referenced or alluded to, from Simpson’s donkey to Kafka’s chimp Red Peter to Collette’s cat to Tolstoy’s tortoise to Gérard de Nerval’s leashed lobster.
Only the Animals, published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, is not out until May, so I shouldn’t reveal too much more about it except to say that this book, Dovey’s second after the acclaimed 2007 novel Blood Kin, confirms her as a singular talent. The title, by the way, comes from a quote by American author Boria Sax, who has written extensively on animal-human relations: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.’’ THE inaugural Australian and New Zealand Festival of Literature and the Arts in London is taking shape, with the program launch scheduled for Friday. Festival director Jon Slack, who was born in Adelaide, reared in New Zealand and lives in Britain, has been back home in recent weeks, drumming up interest in the four-day celebration of Australian and NZ literature, film, music and art. In a warm-up event on April 3, Booker Prize incumbent Eleanor Catton will be in conversation with Robert Macfarlane, who headed the Booker judging panel. The festival proper kicks off on May 29 with an opening night address by Tim Winton. Other confirmed participants include Clive James, who will take the stage solo, Helen Garner, Carmen Callil, Nicholas Shakespeare, Fay Weldon, CK Stead, Kim Scott, ML Stedman, John Pilger, Geoffrey Robertson, Kathy Lette and William Shawcross. The festival website is ausnzfestival.com. “AUTHORS who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.’’ Don’t ask me why, but that quote from the late, great Christopher Hitchens came to mind when I heard my friend and colleague Geordie Williamson had signed on as fiction editor at the excellent Tasmaniabased literary magazine Island. The first Geordie-influenced Island is out now, with new fiction by Paul Griffith, Ashley Hay, Colin Oehring, Laurie Steed and Jessica White. More information at islandmag.com.
Quote of the week:
”If you’re asking if I’d rather sell 270 million books or have the Booker Prize, then I’d rather sell the 270 million books.’’ Jeffrey Archer, in an interview to promote his new novel, Be Careful What You Wish For.
March 22-23, 2014