Animal stories – hearts and souls

I begin (ironically) with a quote.

Only the Animals is an award-winning collection of short stories by Ceridwen Dovey.

Winning awards and getting into the front window of Readings means Success in Australia and, given the Animals in the title, a must read for me. I’ve been meaning to blog about this book for a while but I couldn’t because Anson Cameron‘s book was trapped in a cardboard box in storage. Stay with me, I mean well. Now freed, shelved and at home in the new house, Pepsi Bears is also an award-winning collection of short stories, which I need to consider while thinking about Only the Animals.

Only the Animals is a beautifully presented book. The cover is sparse grey with a grim domestic picture of radiated cats glowing green and streaming about a human couple made of some kind of modelling clay in a horrid kitchen. The slim line of the pale title font continues into the front pages and arrives at two illuminating quotes, one of which is: “On one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil. When I write, the first side is true; when I do not the second is.” Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog. Portentous, no?

So, once in the door, forewarned, we see the collection is ironed, folded and separated out into time and place and souls of different animals.

There’s a lovely picture at the head of each story, based on seeing the animal of the moment in the stars. The first story is for a camel from 1892 and Henry Lawson and the camel tells ‘a good story about death in the wastelands’. The next, a story about a cat, opens with constellation and quotation, like a dramatic chord in preparation, decorating the mantle and introducing us to Collette, who apparently owned the cat of the story. Most of the stories have one or two such defining moments from the pens of others on the headstone and as we delve further into the stories we realise the quotes are a key. We’re hearing echoes of other writers through the sculptured stories. Collette stains the voice of her cat (mimicry? catticry?) and style of whimsy. Back to the first story, and yup, there’s the soul of Henry Lawson knocking on the table. Only the Animals is in fact a séance of dead writers – not only the animals!

The unseen energy drives the empty glass fast across the ages, chimpanzee followed by dog, followed by mussel, swerves relentlessly through bear and dolphin to end in parrot in 2006. “If nothing else, you could at least say she’d been perspicacious.” Certainly clever, witty and erudite, Dovey’s stories are wonderful creations. I read on, filled with admiration for the architecture, the structure of the tales, the clean organisation and the orderly manner these blocks of civilisation arise into an elegant edifice.

I had a similar experience when visiting the Victorian National Gallery to see one of the Top Arts exhibitions. As I wandered, seeing colourful sculptures and dramatic paintings, I turned a corner to face an extraordinary pencil drawing, larger than life, of some young person’s grandfather, done over the course of a year, in such incredible detail that one’s mind convulses with the effort, the concentration and devotion it must have taken to create that piece in the final year of school. And so I gazed at the Souls, glimpsing the homage and the heritage inherent, particularly evident in mussel’s soul of the beat poets (thinking well, I just don’t know enough, maybe there’s more fossils of interest embedded in the strata) and I yet I yearned for more, I longed to be, well, pushed, surprised, angered …

None of these cut-glass images etched by stars managed to lodge in my heart (they’re called souls not hearts after all) and I kept recalling a story called ‘A zebra in no-man’s land’, which could well have a place in this cosmology, from Pepsi Bears, the recently-shelved-in-my-new-house, award-winning collection of stories about animals. (Okay, shortlisted in the 2011 APA Book Design Awards – obviously another good-looking book!) But, you know, these stories have heart.

I don’t think Anson Cameron evoked so many writers or floated souls into his designs but he is certainly another witty human being who enjoys an earthiness alien to Ceridwen. There are stories in Pepsi Bears about shit and vengeance and a zebra accounting for a ceasefire in the First World War. Anson’s opening chord is: “In which the nature of mankind is cruelly illuminated by various beasts”.

I’m all for stories about animals – for animals that can read – although personally I find them an acquired taste. If you do not fancy reading either of these tomes, try one for yourself. Perhaps you too might find ‘luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth’. I encourage you to head to your favourite writing method, seek your muse and imagine what life might be like for another species. But take it easy, lest the construction of the cage stills the beating heart within.

Please leave a comment - would you travel this way??