Jo Langdon reviews “Only the Animals” by Ceridwen Dovey

0003537_300Only the Animals

by Ceridwen Dovey

Hamish Hamilton

ISBN 9781926428581

Reviewed by JO LANGDON

Ceridwen Dovey’s award-winning Only the Animals is comprised of astonishing interventions and a multiplicity of voices that powerfully re-create and re-focalise narratives of the past. Each of the ten stories is typically recalled, posthumously, by the ‘soul’ of an animal affected—and ultimately killed—by human violence. A camel is shot in colonial Australia to the laughter of Henry Lawson; Colette’s cat finds herself unexpectedly separated from her beloved owner and lost on the Western Front; a freewheeling mussel, voiced a la Jack Kerouac, dies at Pearl Harbor; a tortoise with prior connections to Leo Tolstoy, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and George Orwell perishes at the ‘height’ of the Cold War—very literally, after she is launched into space during the Russian space program. As the authors made note of in this list might suggest, these stories also feature a stellar line-up of literary allusions. The book’s creative bridges, a notable feature of this collection, emphasise the role of intertextuality and revision, attesting to the fundamental role of other texts; to the ‘conversation’ literature and its creative imaginings and (re)presentations of the world compose. Individually and taken together, these stories are impressive feats of playful ‘originality’ rich in voice, dazzling and devastating in scope.

Chronologically ordered, the collection spans the years 1892–2006. The third story, set in Germany, 1917, evokes the ape narrator of Franz Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’. Dovey’s ‘Red Peter’s Little Lady’ centres and builds on—perhaps departs from—the ‘little half-trained female chimpanzee’ afforded only a few clauses or four sentences (depending on the translation) in the penultimate paragraph of Kafka’s narrative. These lines provide the epigraph and ostensibly the impetus for Dovey’s story. In this alternate or counter narrative, the reader is invited to witness the comical and unsettling ways in which Red Peter’s mate to-be, named Hazel in Dovey’s tale, is socialised and taught to ‘perform’ her gendered human identity. Via their epistolary courtship, Hazel reveals to Red Peter: ‘My ears are pierced with metal studs to make me beautiful. I can pull on stockings without laddering them.’ However, the story’s World War I backdrop means that ‘there are no longer any stockings to be had’ (57). Hazel candidly relates:

I am itchy. Itchy, itchy, itchy. Frau Oberndorff won’t let me scratch. She bathes me, combs my hair to make it lie down, cuts my toenails, cleans my tear ducts. She says my breath is a problem. It stinks. I like the stink. I breathe out and sniff it in. . . . I scratch my bum, sniff my fingers. (52)

Hazel continually refers to her own physicality frankly and with little regard for ‘decorum’. As their written courtship progresses, she advises Red Peter: ‘I cannot give you much other than a warm body flexible in the ways you would like it, a certain length of arm, bow legs, a barrel torso.’ She asks: ‘Would you like me to be more human, or less human, or more or less human?’ (60).

The playful, subversive and comic charge of Hazel’s perspective heightens the ultimately tragic nature of her discovery of Red Peter’s feelings for his trainer’s wife, Frau Oberndorff (an affair also revealed through letter writing, Frau Oberndorff being the facilitator of Red Peter and Hazel’s correspondence). Another overt nod to Kafka’s iconic works of fiction is the sign Hazel, betrayed and refusing to eat, instructs Frau Oberndorff to display outside her cage: ‘THE HUNGER ARTIST’ (68).

Elsewhere, human and animal relationship dynamics work to reveal humans’ propensity for hypocrisy. Adolf Hitler and many other Nazi party members famously loved and showed considerable compassion towards their companion animals, as we are reminded in ‘Hundstage’, a story told through the point of view of Heinrich Himmler’s German Shepherd. Indeed, as the lead-in this story’s epigraph from Boria Sax reminds us, ‘Those who are humane towards animals are not necessarily kind to human beings’ (75). The ironic charge of ‘Hundstage’ is considerable; the story emphasises karma, compassion and reincarnation via Himmler’s significant interest in Hinduism. As he listens to the humans around him converse about Hindu figures and beliefs, the dog narrator reports: ‘I already knew who Krishna and Arjuna were; like me, they were vegetarians’ (80). Nonetheless, he struggles to maintain his vegetarianism and good karma when the conversation moves to the slaughter of chickens:

I thought of the few chickens I had managed to kill and eat in my life, before becoming a vegetarian, and felt sick. And hungry. I thought of how good their blood tasted, of how prettily their feathers floated through the air. (79)

Such shifts in thought are realised when the narrator finds himself starving in the woods, having been banished by his master after a purported act of disloyalty. The anguished dog recalls other acts that have disgraced his family:

Grandfather’s lowest moment – an incident that was not recorded in any research notebooks – was being caught behind a bitch of unknown breeding kept in the same facility for canine medication experimentation, whose hair and teeth had fallen out. He felt the burden then of being the ur-type, and swore off females until von Stephanitz guided my beautiful grandmother into his pen. (77)

This account unsettlingly evokes The Nazis’ medical experiments and the groups of humans, deemed lesser, on whom these experiments were conducted. Indeed, non-human perspectives also allow the reader glimpses of human suffering—and too of the patent yet insidious social and ideological divisions of our world: Collette’s cat, Kiki-la-Doucette, befriends a soldier in the trenches and reveals of her new human companion: ‘In the night, my soldier lay beside his friend, hand in hand. I think they are in love but hide it from the other soldiers’ (34). ‘The Bones’, the story focalised through the perspective of the camel, depicts Australia’s frontier wars in tellingly elliptical ways that draw the reader’s attention to suppressed violence and silenced atrocity:

Henry Lawson lowered his voice. Then the medium said, out of nowhere, “Hospital Creek. Do you know of it?” Mitchell’s father’s sunburnt face went pale. “Yes,” he said. “I worked at the stockyard there.” The medium was silent for a long time. “I’m getting – a fire. A fire of some kind.” Mitchell’s father said nothing. “Bodies in a fire,” she said. “A lot of them.” And at this, Mitchell’s father began to shake, a grown man trembling, but not with fear. With rage. “You bitch,” he spat, “don’t you know how to keep your mouth shut like the rest of us?” (7)

Indeed, by drawing our attention to occluded histories and perspectives, Only the Animals also serves as a powerful reminder of the ways in which our world values certain human and non-human lives more than others. In a ‘real world’ and human context, we are reminded of this regularly, and not least of all by our politicians. We might consider, for example, the markedly routine comments of the former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (also the Minister for Indigenous Affairs) with regards to Aboriginal history and culture [1], or Australia’s asylum seeker policies and the ways in which various political parties and leaders have promised or continued to treat certain groups of people cruelly for political gain, while the Counting Dead Women [2] project is a devastating reminder of the ‘private’, ‘domestic’ and often unspoken nature of certain forms of violence; the ways in which trauma is an accepted part of women’s existence.

Such examples are certainly not to suggest that the experiences of the animals in these stories stand in, metaphorically, for those of humans—or certain groups of humans; that these are anthropocentric projections. Dovey’s animals are utterly themselves—as much as they are self-consciously and self-reflexively works of historical and literary pastiche—as are her human characters, the good, kind, and ugly. The book’s title draws from a quote by Sax: ‘What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.’ Certainly, these narratives provide mirrors that are not always flattering, yet nonetheless unfailingly compassionate. Ultimately, these tender, funny and immersive stories provide a constellation of perspectives both timeless and urgent in their calls for kindness, remembrance, listening and acknowledgement.


[1] 1 In 2014 Abbott reiterated what Amy McQuire describes as ‘the legal fiction of “terra nullius”’, by stating that ‘back in 1788’ Australia ‘was nothing but bush’ (qu. McQuire 2014). Abbott’s comments also include a description of the colonisation of Australia as ‘the defining moment in the history of this continent’ (qu. Dingle 2014), and an assertion that ‘[t]he first lot of Australians were chosen by the finest judges in England’ (“Gillard And Abbott Attend Australia Day Citizenship Ceremonies” 2013)—effectively erasing 60,000 years of Aboriginal history, and the trauma and grief suffered by Aboriginal communities as a result of European imperialism, from the discourse on Australia’s past.



JO LANGDON tutors in Literary Studies and Professional & Creative Writing in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Geelong. She is the author of a chapbook of poetry, Snowline (2012), which was co-winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Her recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Westerly, Powder Keg and Overland.