A pair of ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

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.

www.theaus­tralian.com.au/arts

March 22-23, 2014

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