Empathy and Imagination: What animals can teach us

Nell Porter Brown in Harvard Magazine:

OnlytheanimalsOnly the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey ’03, is a beautifully wrought, disconcerting collection of stories told by the souls of dead animals. A cat is picked off by a sniper on the Western Front; a blue mussel drowns in Pearl Harbor; a courageous tortoise is launched into Soviet-era space; and a self-mutilating parrot is abandoned in Beirut amid the 2006 Israeli air strikes. Yet Dovey lightens and layers these tales with humor, imagination, and an ingenious literary construct. Most of the animals are connected to writers—Colette, Jack Kerouac, and Gustave Flaubert, among others—who have featured animals in their own fiction, and can emulate their literary voices. (The Kerouacian mussel saying good-bye to a friend: “We didn’t understand but we let him go, hurting, as the flames of a hot red morning played upon the masts of fishing smacks and danced in the blue wavelets beneath the barnacled docks.”) Thus, what Dovey says began as “an experiment” in retelling historic incidents of mass suffering through voiceless, vulnerable beings “to shock readers into radical empathy” became, instead, “this weird mix of short story, literary biography, and essay—with lots of details that are true to life—and then also a sort of love-letter tribute to these authors who fascinate me.”

Published last year in Australia (Dovey lives in Sydney), Only the Animals elicited a helpful blurb from J.M. Coetzee, along with several awards; it was due out in the United Kingdom in August and Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release the American edition on September 15. Some of the book’s themes—conflict, abuse of power, and the amorphous origins of cruelty, inspiration, and empathy—also surface in Dovey’s very different debut novel, Blood Kin (2007). Set in a nameless country during a military coup, the slim, edgy book mines the complexities of collusion, with an undercurrent of danger and eroticism, through the first-person accounts of the ex-president’s barber, cook, and portraitist, all of whom are imprisoned at a remote country estate.

More here.