There is something beautiful about allowing oneself to surrender to a state of disbelief, to be shown the way into an imaginative world via a trick of the eye. In visual art, the compulsion to surrender to the belief you are falling either into or out of an image is known as trompe-l’oeil, French for ‘deceive the eye’. The deception is most often a joyous one, using altered perceptions to enhance and enliven the magic of daily life.
South Africa-Australian author Ceridwen Dovey’s short story collection Only the Animals encourages a comparable state of joyous deception. Dovey’s stories conduct ten animals into a state beyond definitive human or animal existence, compelling the reader to take a leap of imaginative faith and trust the narrative validity of the ape, the mussel, the turtle and the elephant.
The ten stories are narratives of conflict, war, hatred and destruction, each told from the perspective of a different animal. In the majority of the stories, Dovey avoids clunky stylistic traps often found in animal-centric fiction, withholding from her animal characters the ability to directly communicate with people. The most successful stories create a brilliant tension between the animals’ willingness to speak and their inability to be heard. They encourage our desire to believe that animals are watching us, loving us, enjoying us, envying us, and when necessary, attempting to save us.
Each story takes place at the nexus of a destructive human conflict some time between 1892 and 2006: World War I, Pearl Harbor, Mozambique’s civil war, the conflict in Iraq and many others. The creatures’ responses to the conflicts they are caught in add an empathetic layer to the battles: their pity of humans, their confusion, jealousy, heartache and sense of impending loss imbue momentous events with an even heavier sense of gravity, forcing readers to assess the actions and impact of the human species.
Dovey’s strong literary background is evident in stories which engage with the history of animal literature, from a campfire discussion between Henry Lawson and a pitying camel with ghosts of its own; to a Ted Hughes-reading dolphin penning a letter to Sylvia Plath; to the mussel imitating Kerouac’s beat style on route to its demise. Perhaps most compelling is the fate of Tolstoy’s tortoise. Engraved with the great Russian’s final message, she passes from Virginia Woolf to George Orwell toward before reaching her eventual end above the earth in a ‘cold little cabin’ – a willing victim of the space race and our unrelenting, monomaniacal push towards modernity.
Perhaps inevitably, Dovey’s stories have drawn comparisons with other animal-narrated books, particularly Animal Farm. As in Animal Farm, the animals in Dovey’s tales have desires, individual senses of hierarchy and power, and innate understandings of cause and effect. The self-reflexive nature of each animal’s narration compels the reader to believe in its ability to self-project, to assume another’s state of being and to empathise with humans. In ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’, Kafka’s talking ape laments, ‘You made me a better human, and I would like to think – dare I say it? – that I made you a better ape.’ Within the scope of Dovey’s stories, her purposeful style threads each narrative together into a series of modern fables, ethical lessons whose imaginative and narrative empathy is essential.
Dovey’s stories of animal integrity and perception must be considered within their historical and moral contexts. These animals have suffered at the hands of humans, and feel pain as fully as humans. Dovey suggests animals suffer as humans do, and that our actions toward them require the same ethical considerations we would extend to one another. If we can be better to the animals, we will be better to humans too.