Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Review: Only the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey

There's a quote by Robin Williams' character in the movie August Rush which is, 'You know what music is? God's little reminder that there's something else besides us in the universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.' I came across this quote accidentally after reading Dovey's Only the Animals, and when I read it I thought it encapsulated how I felt about the book perfectly: it's a beautiful reminder that there is a connection between all things in this world which should be celebrated more.

Only the Animals is written from the perspective of animals who have been killed as a result of human conflict throughout the twentieth century; ranging from World Wars I and II to the Cold War to the 2006 bombing of Beirut. The animals, who each have a chapter devoted to them, also pay tribute to writers who wrote about animals in their career; from Leo Tolstoy to Virginia Wolf to Sylvia Plath. The result is an intricately woven collection of stories which are part imaginative mastery and part a timely reminder that humans have much to learn from animals.

It's this latter point that has pleasantly surprised me the more I read stories centred around animals (Martel's Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil are others). And the reason for this, which Dovey cleverly includes in her own book, is that there is sometimes 'no way [for humans] to say what...[should be said]...except by making that animal speak for them.' 

Thus on a number of occasions while reading this book, I was awed by the sheer power of the perspective an animal  provided. And while a human could just as easily have said these words, there's something curious and enigmatic about why they were particularly powerful because they were uttered by an animal. It's these sorts thoughts which Only the Animals spurred for me that I really loved.

I'll indulge myself now and add in my favourite quote from the book, which, once you've read it, may ironically not resonate with you at all. This quote is spoken by a turtle who grows up living with the Tolstoy family in Russia, is shipped to the UK to live with Viriginia Wolf, and finally ends up involved in the Space Race in the USA. Here the turtle is reflecting on the time he has spent discussing books with Tolstoy's daughter:

'I am aware that one person's insights and epiphanies from unique reading journeys are not always interesting to another, just as other people's tales about their travels mostly inspire boredom. I've wondered why this is for humans, and I've decided it has something to do with the perceived alchemical magic of the discoveries that books (or travel) enable: they are utterly private and idiosyncratic, and, to the person undergoing them, feel ordained, auspicious, designed especially for them at that particular moment in their lives. In a century during which many people have lost the religious framework of fatalism, it seems books have become signs to interpret and follow - this book has come into my life for a reason, the author is speaking to me and to me alone. And this, in a strange way, leads to people becoming evangelical about books. You must read this, they preach, forgetting that it was the way they stumbled serendipitously upon the book - finding it abandoned on the seat of a couch, or dusty in the attic, or neglected in a dark stack in the library - that was partially responsible for its powers.'

As I've already alluded to, this quote may not resonate with you at all, and I can appreciate the irony of it being used in a book review; after all the latter is a forum used to recommend books to you, which the turtle suggests is meaningless to everyone but the reader. Nevertheless, for me it captures the philosophical nature of the book and how well Dovey writes. And, fortunately for the reader, there's many more such thought-provoking quotes within her book.

Regardless of how you feel about book reviews, Only the Animals is an absolute treasure of a book to read and it will undoubtedly take you on an incredibly unique and enchanting reading journey.

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