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Only the Animals

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From award-winning novelist Ceridwen Dovey, a collection of linked short stories as innovative and beautifully written as Nam Le's The Boat.

Ten tales are told by the souls of animals killed in human conflicts in the past century or so, from a camel in colonial Australia to a cat in the trenches in World War I, from a bear starved to death during the siege of Sarajevo to a mussel that died in Pearl Harbour. Each narrator also pays homage to an author who has written imaginatively about animals during much the same time span: Henry Lawson, Colette, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Günter Grass, Julian Barnes, and others.

These stories are brilliantly plotted, exquisitely written, inevitably poignant but also playful and witty. They ask us to consider profound questions. Why do animals shock us into feeling things we can't seem to feel for other humans? Why do animals allow authors to say the unsayable? Why do we sometimes treat humans as animals, and animals as humans? Can fiction help us find moral meaning in a disillusioned world?

Ceridwen Dovey is a prodigiously gifted storyteller, an insightful thinker, and a prose writer of great range. Each of the storylines is an opening to a new way of considering the nature of violence and the relationship between human and animal experiences of the world. Only The Animals will ask you to believe again, just for a moment, in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.

304 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Ceridwen Dovey

23 books134 followers
Ceridwen Dovey grew up in South Africa and Australia, studied as an undergraduate at Harvard, and now lives in Sydney. Her first novel, Blood Kin, was translated into fifteen languages and selected for the US National Book Foundation’s prestigious ‘5 Under 35’ award. J.M. Coetzee called it ‘A fable of the arrogance of power beneath whose dreamlike surface swirl currents of complex sensuality.' Her second work of fiction, Only the Animals, will be published by Penguin in 2014 (Australia) and Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2015 (USA).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 245 reviews
Profile Image for Sally Howes.
72 reviews56 followers
August 5, 2014
I have never been a big fan of short stories - I have always liked the idea of them more than the actuality. This is the book that changed my mind. ONLY THE ANIMALS takes a uniquely interesting premise - a collection of short stories narrated by the souls of different animals who have experienced the great man-made conflicts, atrocities, and disasters of the past century or so - and fully delivers on its great potential. Every single story is intensely insightful and moving, quietly but emphatically displaying the dignity and compassion of which only the animals are capable. Mankind might dominate the world, but the animals are the ones who remind us just how human we really are.

This is not to say that the stories aren't infused with a wonderful sense of playfulness and fun. After all, among other things, we are taken on a road trip (well, waterways trip) with a young mussel, we are taken into outer space with a tortoise, and we get to read a letter written posthumously by a dolphin to Sylvia Plath. Indeed, famous figures from history appear regularly throughout the stories, from Henry Lawson to Leo Tolstoy, Himmler to Virginia Woolf. As one of my favorite narrators from the stories comments, "It was at this time that he named me Plautus the Tortoise, after the Roman comic playwright who valued imagination and the fantastic above anything he could scavenge from real life." These values could also be said to exemplify Ceridwen Dovey, and neither time nor custom can stale the infinite variety of her stories.

But the greatest strength of this collection of stories is the insight it gives into human nature, an insight that can only come from outside, an insight that only the animals can provide. While every story is very different from the others, they all share some important qualities. Each of the animal narrators has a quietly respectful sympathy for humans and an implacable honesty about what they see in the supposedly superior species. As Kiki-la-Doucette, the cat who finds herself comforting soldiers in the trenches in France in 1915, says, "... I identify with the refusal of mules to be anything they don't truly feel themselves to be. Humans tend to call this bad manners or lack of respect for authority, but I call it the highest form of authenticity." ONLY THE ANIMALS suggests an authenticity in animals that humans can only wonder at.

From this position of authentic frankness, each of the animals in the stories observes humans in all their glory and all their unequalled depravity. Perhaps the most curious and wonderful thing, however, is that the animals' observations are invariably profound without being patronizing. They watch us with a moving tenderness, often appearing baffled by us but at the same time seeing us more clearly than we see ourselves. A chimpanzee named Red Peter gives an example of the piercing insight that so captivated me: "... the humans ... seem to think that what sets them apart from other animals is their ability to love, grieve, feel guilt, think abstractly, et cetera. They are misguided. What sets them apart is their talent for masochism. Therein lies their power. To take pleasure in pain, to derive strength from deprivation, is to be human."

I believe the power of stories lies in their capacity to encourage us to ask questions about our world, our society, and our selves. With ONLY THE ANIMALS, Ceridwen Dovey has found an especially powerful means of asking questions about our humanity. I'll leave the last words on this to Sprout the dolphin, who narrates the penultimate story in this marvelous literary menagerie: "Perhaps you should be asking yourselves different questions. Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals? And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as humans?"
Profile Image for Michele Harrod.
519 reviews47 followers
May 24, 2016
Oh my. I would have loved for this book to never end, because of course, I would happily commune with the animals until the day I die. And sadly, there are just so many stories to be told of how humans have affected, caused, instigated or influenced the death of an animal. I can't quite put into words what an emotional rollercoaster this novel was for me. To be treated to an author who has made the assumption that animals have a far greater intelligence and insight than us, and yet still retain a deep love and empathy for us - the lesser species - has been a magnificent experience for me. I feel a very special kinship with this author. To find someone who treats even fictional animals with such utter respect, is incredibly heart-warming for me. This is a trait I seek in humans in real life, and I am seldom rewarded to this level. I feel like I have uncovered a very rare diamond.

And sure enough, that brilliant light that resides within us and our animal friends shone at times from these pages, just like a burst of light will shoot from a diamond when it is placed at exactly the right angle to the sun.

Whilst this alleges to represent a view of the world and our history, through the eyes of a variety of animals - the sharpness of the view into us, the humans, is so razor sharp, I found it both exquisitely funny, achingly tender and utterly heartbreaking, all at the same time. I feel I have witnessed an author place our subtle failings and our tragic weaknesses gently between the lines of a book many would find 'ridiculous'. But that's us. isn't it ? We really don't want to see ourselves as we truly are. How would our egos ever cope with accepting that we, the humans, have so much to learn from the animals we share this planet with?

Needless to say, I knew long before the end that I would have to own this book. My copy is winging its way from some distant shore, and I delight in the knowledge that I will reread this many times. I will laugh at our mussell traits, remain in awe of the mighty cat, thirst for knowledge like the tortoise, dream of the chance to commune with a dolphin, and honour the deep loneliness we humans harbour in our souls, that only an animal companion can heal. And most importantly, I will try very, very hard to forgive us, as I have for 50 years now, for the things only the humans do to our earthly companions. I live in prayer, that the soul of one will one day be able to tell a story - of the time humans finally recognise our absolute connection with them all, and from whence, we will be rendered incapable of doing anything but love them.
Profile Image for Kiran Bhat.
Author 11 books188 followers
October 20, 2020
"Dovey was born in South Africa and grew up between that country and Australia. She is a citizen of both; her dual heritage clearly comes across in her writing. Both Australia and South Africa are countries with an almost primal relationship to their landscapes and animals. If a globalist tradition based on the pungency of the earth and the various species that live amongst each other were birthed, I would not be surprised if it came from such a cultural spread. And it is in Only The Animals that we see the cusps of this style, first imagined from the perspective of the woman who dared compose it."

- A portion of this review was published as part of a greater collective essay at 3AM Magazine: https://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/futur...
Profile Image for Amanda - Mrs B's Book Reviews.
1,915 reviews271 followers
November 18, 2018
Imagine you embody the spirit of a bear in the year 1992 Bosnia, or a tortoise that lived its final days in space in the year 1968, or a dolphin based in Iraq in 2003. This is just an introduction to the strange, unusual and touching stories contained in Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. Published in 2014, Only the Animals is a collection of ten short stories concerning animals directly involved in human conflict. Humanity in all its triumphs and failings is the central concern of this novel, where the reader receives a unique insight into these conflicts, via the varying perspectives of a collection of animals.

Ceridwen Dovey’s collection of stories encompass around a century of death, war zones and conflict. Narrated from the first person point of view of ten different animals, each animal’s perspective of a world event surrounding them is as different as they come. It opens the raw and very real existence of our world. We see humans at their very best and at rock bottom. Only the Animals reminds us that our world can be cruel and precarious. The prose in Only the Animals is refined, reflective and witty. This is a one of kind collection, highlighting Dovey’s unusual gift for embodying the lives of animals. It leaves a stain on the reader’s mind, prompting us to be more understanding of the plight of animals that quietly observe our happenings.

I freely admit that I have a tenuous relationship with short stories, I often get frustrated by the lack of narrative and character development. However, I have had Only the Animals on my bookshelf since the year it was published, I recall this book receiving plenty of accolades in the form of award shortlist and longlists at the time it came out. The cover of my version of the book also appealed to my reader’s heart. It features a series of lime green cats spread in all orifices of an elderly couple’s home. Like the book itself, this is an unusual cover, but still very intriguing. Many of these stories cover wars, so I was interested in seeing how Dovey would situate these stories. I found Only the Animals to be a mixture of insightful, poignant, humorous and a little off the grid.

My favourite of all ten of the stories was actually the opener. I really enjoyed the soul of the camel, conveying his life story in 1892 bush Australia, with references to Henry Lawson. This story read like a newsreel that I pictured as the camel spoke. It was measured, creative and engaging. My attention didn’t wane at all during this story and the cat based in World War I France. I was also pleasantly surprised to find so many great literature references littered throughout Only the Animals. Many of the animals featured in this book have a profound connection to a well known storyteller or book (think Henry Lawson, Leo Tolstoy, Sylvia Plath and Julian Barnes). If you have a deep appreciation for our grand masters of the written word, this one will be sure to draw you in.

I also loved the added touch of the animal constellation images contained at the start of each short story opening page. It is an interesting touch and provides a good introduction to each story. Dovey is deliberate in her choice to balance different animal types, locations, time periods and situation types. Only the Animals does largely take place over the course of a century from start to finish. This book gives us an excellent glimpse into defining world events and how humanity must look in the eyes of a non human beholder. It is confronting, but Dovey is assured in her approach and what she has to say about the way in which we regard ourselves.

Only the Animals is my choice of book bingo 2018, to cover the square ‘a book with non- human characters’. While humans do feature in this story collection, it is the animals that hold the microphone in this book. Their song is creative, poignant, poetic and sad. The prose is tight but it does manage to convey as much as possible to the reader in a short time frame.

In Only the Animals, humanity is given the once over from the remarkable perspective of a collection of animals, in the capable hands of award winning author Ceridwen Dovey. Add Only the Animals to your reading list if you don’t mind being placed in the hands of an alternative storyteller. It is time to let the animals speak for themselves as we listen to their extraordinary lives.

Only the Animals is book #138 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge
Profile Image for lethe.
542 reviews102 followers
June 18, 2022
As with all collections, some stories appealed more than others. I didn't much care for the first three (narrated by a camel, a cat, and a chimpanzee, respectively), but from "Hundstage" on (told by Himmler's German Shepherd) I started to enjoy this.

My favourites were the stories by the tortoise ("Plautus: A Memoir of My Years on Earth and Last Days in Space") and the dolphin ("A Letter to Sylvia Plath"), but the others, about a mussel in Pearl Harbor (amusing but quite poignant in the end), an elephant and her twin in Mozambique, two bears in Sarajevo Zoo, and a parrot in Beirut were good too.

Edit 18 June 2022: adding my text updates under the spoiler tag in case they are disappeared:

Profile Image for Kirsten.
476 reviews7 followers
February 23, 2015
Why didn't I read this sooner?

10 very compelling stories told, posthumously, by animals involved in human conflict.

Sel, a mussel, riffing on life on the road ala Kerouac, ending up in Pearl Harbour. A tortoise, companion of Tolstoy's daughter, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell before being sent to the moon as part of the Cold War space race. Himmler's German Shepherd, Kafka's Red Peter, a camel accompanying Henry Lawson on his famous trek from Hungerford to Bourke, a dolphin writing a letter to Sylvia Plath.

There's a big element of self reference here but it doesn't feel contrived or laboured, the writers that Dovey has chosen to pay homage to are perfect and her tone is just right.

The stories themselves are fascinating, funny, moving. I particularly loved Colette's cat, the hipster mussels and the beautiful story of the twin elephants watching their ancestors in the stars at night. I want more.

Profile Image for Anna.
482 reviews12 followers
June 28, 2018
Abandoned, in part because my heart couldn't take the constant animal deaths, and in part because this is overwritten wank.
Profile Image for Darcey.
930 reviews194 followers
January 4, 2022
this was... really weird. a little disturbing at stages. but i actually enjoyed it a surprising amount, and at stages i even forgot that i was only reading it because of school! not bad at all, especially for a school book. weird but interesting.
but it went towards my reading challenge, so yay!
485 reviews140 followers
Currently reading
February 8, 2014

Initially animals ruled our planet.
Humans arrived much later ie. human apes.
Now animals are totally at the mercy of Humans.
Note the 10,000 race horses which are shot every year
for failing to win.*

Animals are or have been used
to work,
to produce food or be food,
for fun,
for the advancement of science,
for making money
or as a fashion accessory,dead or alive.

Free animals,called "wild", have escaped a use.
But they are eligible for the zoo,for hunting or tourism.
Or their Homeland may need developing.

Animals could be called the Jews of the Animal World
-sub-human and expendable.
Each species is open to abuse and hovers on the brink of Extinction.
Their main chance of survival is
the extinction of the Human Animal
which has recently been forecast.
As Animal Lovers let us wish them Luck.
(* in Australia)

The above is the content of my Philosophymas card for 2013
which had as its greeting "Happy Animalmas".
The philosopher chosen for this Issue was
the Australian-Jewish philosopher Peter Singer
best known for his book
"Liberation:A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals",
which spawned the International Animal Liberation Movement.
Animalmas lasted for the duration of 2013
...and hopefully beyond.

Profile Image for Reindert Van Zwaal.
148 reviews9 followers
January 3, 2018
I was really disappointed by this collection of short stories. I bought this one because of the topic of the book, the cruelty of humans towards animals during conflicts, drew me in. However, I better had not. Most of the stories were vague, with strange twists and stories within stories. Then somehow the animal died and this was supposed to have a meaning and something to do with the cruelty of humans. However, this was mostly not the case and completely out of context.

Only the stories of the bear and the dolphin I liked, as they were quite plausible and gave insight in de thinking of the animal.
But a mussel thinking about its life...? Oh dear!
Profile Image for Robert Lukins.
Author 2 books80 followers
January 14, 2018
A human on animals on humans; thoughtful, and there's a tortoise in space.
Profile Image for Angela Meyer.
Author 18 books203 followers
May 6, 2014
Each animal in this book is given a soul and story so complex (as are the times through which they live). The style of each story changes, often influenced by writers that feature in the animals' lives - humorous, beatific, melancholy. I was most moved by the tortoise who journeys from Tolstoy to space, via the Bloomsbury group, and the dolphin who contemplates connections (across species and in one's own family group) and tells of her military responsibilities in a letter to Sylvia Plath. Dovey's thoughtful, imaginative construction of (and layering within) these pieces has created a collection that is both intellectually and emotionally fascinating.
Profile Image for Freya Findlay.
6 reviews2 followers
September 17, 2022
This was made worse by the fact that the premise is strong and it had so much potential to be good. I found the writing style a bit clunky and contrived, which didn’t help make her obscure ideas any clearer. In the end it felt like the author was trying to demonstrate that she knows lots of facts about history and animals ://
Profile Image for Andrea.
770 reviews30 followers
May 7, 2016
A really interesting premise but just too way out there for me. Half the time, I had no idea what was going on. I liked the bear, the dog and the tortoise stories best.
Profile Image for Madhulika Liddle.
Author 17 books408 followers
August 9, 2015
Literature. Stars and constellations. Human conflict, war. Animals. Death.

These are some of the recurrent themes in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, a very unusual collection of ten short stories. Each story is ‘written’ by the soul of an animal that dies as a result of human conflict. Some literally, like the US military-trained dolphin that dies in action in Iraq in 2003, or the mussel—out for an adventure, having journeyed a long, long way, who anchors himself to a US naval ship that steams into Pearl Harbour in 1941. Or the cat, owned by Colette, which lands up in the trenches during World War I and sees battle, close up.

Or, as a result of war. One of a herd of elephants in Mozambique which, caught in a country torn between the Portuguese and local troops in 1987, dies from sheer hunger and thirst. Or the tortoise, once owned by Tolstoy’s daughter, then by Virginia Woolf and eventually George Orwell, which ends up going into space—as part of the USSR’s endeavour to prove their space mission better than the USA’s, during the Cold War.

This book is not the type one can easily forget, because it’s so very unique. Memoirs of animals? A dog, a mussel, an elephant, a parrot? Animal perceptions of mankind? The stories and their tone are very varied. Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me, for instance, is humorous, chatty—and very anthropomorphic. In sharp contrast, Telling Fairytales, of two bears (one blind) dying in a deserted zoo in Sarajevo during 1992’s Bosnia and Herzegovina war, is heartbreaking, hopeless, grim.

But there are, as I mentioned at the beginning, some themes and motifs which crop up again and again. The connections with literature, for instance: famous writers of prose and poetry (Tolstoy, Colette, Woolf, Plath, etc) are referred to in every story—sometimes as a real, living person whom the animal has interacted with, sometimes as someone whose works have influenced the animal in some way. Sometimes as the very inspiration for the story (Red Peter’s Little Lady, for example, uses Kafka’s A Report to an Academy as a basis, and develops on it—with two chimpanzees, one trained to near-humanness, the other heading that way—dying as a result of the shortages caused by war in 1917.

There are animals in the sky (and not just the tortoise that was sent up into space): elephants, whose souls form constellations and whose lives become stories to be told to generation after generation of wild elephants. The Great Bear. The dolphins, who have their very own constellation .

And death. Not just of the particular animal whose soul tells its story, but of others too. Whether it’s a dead horse mentioned in passing during the bombing of Beirut, or a pig in World War II…

This book won the New Australian Writing Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2015. I can see why. It’s magical, clever, poignant, exceptionally creative—everything.
Profile Image for Jesse Coulter.
39 reviews5 followers
February 10, 2015
I’m not usually much one for short stories, but I found the premise of this so interesting (the awesome photography on the jacket was what initially lured me in) that I had to give it a go. I’m very glad I did, because this book has a lot to give.

It took me a while to read- I think this was a combination of the nature of short stories being a bit stop/start, and me having a lot on at the time. This is certainly not to say anything of the quality of the writing- Dovey has a knack for provoking great pathos and introspection in a small word count. I think the stories being told from animal perspectives appeals to the altruist in us all, especially in those whose empathy for animals may be greater than that for man- this is a theme best covered in the story about the Nazi dog in WWII. As a vegetarian I find there’s an element of cognitive dissonance for any normal person in the act of eating animals- a wilful assertion of some difference between the animal in the petting zoo and the one on your plate. It may be just me, but I found myself ruminating on this idea whilst reading the book; just how far does animal kinship extend?

There has obviously been a great deal of research done into historical context, animal physiology, and the world of literature for this book. The range of different authors and styles referenced is great- the travelling beat-poet mussel as a nod to Kerouac was a particular favourite stylistically. It’s not flawless- the voices tend to be a bit samey (with some exceptions), and it can be hard to suspend disbelief sometimes; not that you are hearing an animal talk to you, but just how self-aware that animal is. I think it could have been cool to see more of a range in intelligence and personality between animal species. These small qualms aside, this is a great literary collection and worth any reader’s time.

Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,456 reviews82 followers
August 4, 2014
I wanted to love it, but I simply didn't. Most of the stories tried too hard to be philosophical and sophisticated, transforming animals into human poets. I struggled to finish, but got there in the end. Not recommended, and I've run out energy to write a full review. Meh.
Profile Image for Gabriel Uchôa.
262 reviews17 followers
April 14, 2018
“Eles – os humanos, quero dizer – parecem acreditar que o que os separa dos outros animais é sua habilidade de amar, sofrer, sentir culpa, pensar abstratamente etc. Estão enganados. O que os separa é seu talento para o masoquismo. É aí que reside seu poder. Ter prazer na dor, tirar forças da privação, isso é ser humano.”

Neste livro de fábulas escrito pela Ceridewn Dovey somos apresentados a 10 histórias narradas por almas de animais mortos em cenários de guerra relatando como aconteceram suas mortes. Aqui teremos história contadas por gatos, cachorros, tartarugas, camelos, golfinhos e etc, cada qual nos dando detalhes das condições em que viviam, como sobreviviam, como eram seus donos, suas vidas, o que passavam diariamente. São relatos tanto de animais livres como de animais em cativeiro.

A autora tem uma escrita riquíssima, o livro apresenta uma peculiaridade, esses animais estão envolvidos direta ou indiretamente com grandes personalidades da década passada, como por exemplo no conto Alma de Golfinho, um dos golfinhos escreve uma carta para a Sylvia Plath (sensacional), são citados autores como Tolstói, Virginia Wolf, George Orwell, entre outros.

Não é uma leitura fácil ao meu ver, tanto pelo tipo de narrativa como pelo teor dos contos, apesar de usar animais nada relatado aqui é fofo, é bonitinho ou reconfortante. Foi feito pra causar desconforto, pra nos fazer enxergar nossas atitudes como ser humano e o quão inconsequente somos. No começo tive dificuldades pra me adaptar mas depois fluiu um pouco melhor. A leitura não me cativou tanto quanto gostaria, por isso não dei uma nota maior, mas reconheço seu valor e o classifico como uma boa leitura, no geral o livro tem excelentes ensinamentos.

“E se a uma pessoa não é permitido, em momentos de solidão, desenvolver os muitos recursos de sua própria mente (intelectual, criativo, emocional, espiritual) para que possa se reerguer por si, oferecer boa companhia a si mesma, experimentará a desolação profunda de se ver alienada até do melhor de si. Nada pode ser mais desolador.” (Alma de Tartaruga)
Profile Image for K..
3,686 reviews1,007 followers
April 21, 2023
Trigger warnings: animal death, war, violence, death, explosions

So I only picked this up because it was on the VCE Literature text list for the past four years and SO many of our students loved it that I figured I'd finally give it a shot. And, uh, I hated this. I hated this a lot.

So essentially, each short story is written from the perspective of an animal reflecting on their life and their death. And each of their deaths is essentially at the hands of humans, often during war. And, like, YES. I get what Dovey was trying to do. But it was just so WEIRD and so "look at all these literary connections that I've crammed in" and just, like, the most VCE Literature text list title to ever exist.

Look, I don't read lit fic much. I often find it pretentious and dry. I didn't find this to be dry, but I honestly just don't see the appeal. There are tons of reviews talking about how much they cried after every story and how this book has turned them into a life-long vegetarian. And, like, what book did you read?! Because it's not the book I read, that's for sure.

I've read plenty of books from the perspective of animals before - I was a die-hard fan of the Redwall series as a tween - but this was just...weird. It was just weird. And unfortunately, I think elements of it will stick with me in the worst possible way.
Profile Image for Rafael Isidoro.
Author 5 books35 followers
November 23, 2021

Esse livro mexeu comigo de várias formas diferentes.

É impossível não sair da leitura impactado com a sensibilidade que a autora escreve sob o ponto de vista dos animais. O conto da gata, com várias lições sobre companheirismo, o do cão com fidelidade, o chimpanzé e as lições sobre o que nos torna humanes, o golfinho e a ligação que ela tinha com o treinador...
Mas os que mais mexeram comigo foram o do mexilhão e o da elefante. O primeiro, por ter um cárater filosófico e existencial gigantesco. Eu amo discussões sobre isso (o que somos? oncotô? doncovim? proncovô?). Já o da elefante me marcou por ver a luta do bando pela sobrevivência, bem como a passagem de conhecimento entre as gerações.

Eu recomendo a leitura para todes. Acho que é uma leitura que mexe bastante.

A nota só não foi máxima pq alguns contos não consguiram me prender tanto (camelo, tartaruga).

"Só os animais podem nos dizer o que é ser humano."
Profile Image for Sune Borkfelt.
6 reviews
May 29, 2017
I initially started reading this because I was looking for short stories on animals to use in teaching a BA English course, but am now thinking I should have simply put the book on the syllabus in its entirety (maybe I'll do that next time).

Wonderfully written, thought-provoking, at times funny and sometimes emotional, the stories woven together in this collection are truly enjoyable in so many ways, and the premise (deceased nonhuman animals' stories told - most often by themselves from the afterlife) is truly unique. While the animals are sometimes shown to willingly, even enthusiastically, enter into human uses of them that are ethically questionable (such as sending animals into space orbit), the issues are never quite straightforward and multiple questions concerning (the ethical, social, and cultural aspects of) nonhuman-human relationships loom in the background - or, at times, come to the surface.

Everyone will find their own favorites among the stories (mine were the one about the chimpanzee who is a prospective mate for Kafka's Red Peter and the one about the tortoise). The different styles and narration of the stories, their reference to other literary works, and the odd but wonderful mixture of folkloric tradition with contemporary concerns about our relations with other species, also provide plenty of variation throughout, so you never quite figure out what twists and turns might come next.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Catherine.
951 reviews29 followers
May 20, 2022
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 people becoming evangelical about books. You must read this, they preach, forgetting that it was the way they stumbled upon the book — finding it abandoned on the seat of a coach, or dust in the attic, or neglected on the dark stack at the library — that was partially responsible for its powers. — From 'Plautus: A Memoir of My Early Years on Earth and Last Days in Space'

It's difficult to remember while reading this that the same author wrote all the stories. She has a gift for voice. Each story has a different voice, tone and theme. All are set in trying times in human history, times when there certainly would have been animals present and witnessing our epic idiocy. Some are based on fairly well known actual animals, not just settings. One feels very much like a rewrite of another story. Some have almost rug pull endings but all inevitably end in the death of the protagonist. It's just a case of how painful it is for the reader. Does it feel like a treat for the protagonist, a bitter betrayal, a moment of sheer relief or just an inevitably given the scenario? All of these appear at least once. Yes, one of the deaths does feel like a wholly satisfying end for her. This book of variety and intelligent writing is perfect for that often hard to fill "Animal as a Main Character" reading challenge prompt.

I appreciate that for the most part the main characters aren't introducing themselves to the reader, names are given incidentally if they are given at all. The quotes are given on the first page of some of the stories. Those quotes will give you some idea of the inspiration for the story. As an example, the most obvious is a Kerouac related one on 'Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me' (ie the one that feels like a rewrite of a story). There is one upside to having the nasty combination of insomnia and covid iso (hello day 13 I'm really not pleased to see you) you get books read. Kinda. It's still taken me too long to read this. Pick up put down.

Because I found this so hard to write have a series of small comments and quotes from each story. It's my only way to stop any more repetition in the review.

The Bones
Soul of a Camel, Died 1892 in Australia

"Lie down , go back to sleep. It's Christmas night, for God's sake. Ignore the animals. They're our only and most loyal spectators."
Featuring Henry Lawson and the hunt for the Aboriginal Queen's bones.
The Camel protagonist is nameless with a good character development arc. He starts off kinda sweet but you can see his anger rise as the stupidity around him does. There is an interesting choice made to add a religious element to the camel, not sure how to feel about that. Especially as it applies to his death.

Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat and I
Soul of a Cat, Died 1915 in France

And of course she and I identify with the refusal of mules to be anything they don't truly feel themselves to be. Humans tend to call this bad manners or lack of respect for authority, but I call it the highest form of authenticity.
Going to say outright Kiki-la-Doucette and the tomcat's story is a lot. This is a story with all kinds of queer vibes. I think Kiki herself is even given something like low-level trans feelings. But her beloved though absent for the whole story, Colette is either a passing lesbian or bi. There is something endearing in the way Kiki speaks about Colette. She has disliked both Colette's current and ex-husbands with the passions owed a best friend. Fufu the frontline donkey is adorable though... Welcome to the front in the deadpan tone, I didn't see that coming. I'm not going into the story. I can't with this one, it hits a lot of emotional buttons. The ending is so unexpected and so, so well done. It just made me cry.
There is a line here I relate to as part of my family's motto. Our family motto is 'touch not the hand but the glove' (which I embody a lot of the time). The line I really like is Her velvet paw shows its claws very fast. And when she scatches, she leaves a gash.

Red Peter's Little Lady
Soul of a Chimpanzee, Died 1917 in Germany

Most of us derive no pleasure from pain; most of us persist in the belief that romantic love is the shimmering jewel in the crown of human evolution.
This one just feels long. It is told through correspondence between the titular Red Peter, an ape who lives very much as a human, and two female characters. Evelyn, the wife of Red Peter's trainer and his former love, and Hazel, the ape match made for him, who lives with Evelyn. There are gradual tonal shifts as the relationships between the three characters change and evolve. The ending feels inevitable in retrospect but in the moment it felt sudden.

Soul of a Dog, Died 1941 in Poland

To the German, animals are not merely creatures in the organic sense, but creatures who lead their own lives and who are endowed with perceptive facilities, who feel pain and experience joy and prove to be faithful and attached. I won't spoil this by providing the source, but it is unexpected.
This is a story of betrayal and desperation with the Nazi's painted in a favourable light. It's a clever play for a story an adventure with loyalty as a central trait. That makes the ending so much worse is sad, cruel and painful. I know this one is short but it's the best I can do. Doggo deaths are always painful.

Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me
Soul of a Mussel, Died 1941 in the United States of America

Experience is all. Right then I wanted to be inside his mind, it was that kind of hunger, something I'd never felt for a girl because a girl's mind had never grabbed me like that. I wanted to devour his thoughts.
This is set in the US in 1941 with a sea creature, let's be honest there is only ever one place this was going. Only one event that could be central to the end of this story. *spoiler*or you know not this end at Pearl Harbour. But what struck me most with Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me is the striking similarities with what I remember of On the Road. Disclaimer I have only seen the film (when my fave actor pops up I watch it, I've seen some weird s**t because of him). Something as simple as main character Sel's name feels like an echo of On the Road if not a direct reference, that book's main character's name is Sal. Sel is interesting. But all I could see was an extremely On the Road-esque style weird road trip... hallucinations included. It's not bad just not my thing.

Plautus: A Memoir of My Early Years on Earth and Last Days in Space
Soul of a Tortoise, Died 1892 in Space

Why do humans choose to see so many animals in the arrangement of the stars? Who joined the first dots?
Featuring a tortise of Zond 5, a Hermit, Alexandra Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell. This one is clearly a nod to the writing of Virginia Woolf.
This is the only story to have titled chapters. Those chapters contain smaller stories with the titular Plautus, this is after all her biography. We learn where Plautus got her name from and the reason she left her first home, the adventures she went through in her long life. It does require some knowledge of societal and cultural norms at the time but for those who don't understand them information is easily accessible. I do appreciate the little interview Plautus gives us with Veterok and Ugolyok the dog that the Soviets set into space. Plautus: A Memoir of My Early Years on Earth and Last Days in Space is probably one of my fave stories. Plautus herself is just an interesting creation, she is a feminist, the soul of a writer, she saw so much in her long life. In a way, her end is her choice, something she wished for, and deserved (though contrary to the end of the real Zond 5 mission).

I, the Elephant, Wrote This
Soul of an Elephant, Died 1987 in Mozambique

It is the province only of the very young to want things to work out badly. The souls in the sky live on only as long as we remember their stories. Beyond that there is nothing, not for them nor for us.
This one is written well, dealing with the bonds between elephants. That idea of souls being elevated to the sky for their sacrifice is lovely. I'm not familiar with the military conflict that is the setting for this one, the Mozambique civil war. I'm not sure it loses anything in that. The use of historically notable elephants is clever, they are just woven into the mythos. These notable elephants include Suleiman an Asian elephant owned by Archduke Maximilian II in the mid 1500s. It's a good story though I'm not a massive fan of the way it ends.

Telling Fairytales
Soul of a Bear, Died 1987 in Mozambique

Only the bear kept Karol human, or better than human — kept him just whole enough to remain kind. I am because you are, he said to himself over and over, looking at the bear asleep beside him. I am because you are. — This is more about the fairytale version of Wojtek and his closest human likely Anatol Tarnowiecki
Featuring the "pitiful bear" from the Sarajevo Zoo and Wojtek
Set in two time zones, across Europe in WWII in the Sarajevo Zoo during the Seige of Sarajevo. The two bears are almost two of the sides of the single bear that was at the Sarajevo Zoo during the siege, a female black bear. Those two sides are now represented by the blind and extremely slowly dying female brown bear, and the more hardened and cranky male black bear. The story is told through a local witch sneaking into the Zoo to give them food. As a reader I was wondering where this was going, I kinda know Wojtek's story but the Sarajevo side I couldn't see where it was going. The ending, both endings, are a gut punch. All pain with something of a silver lining if you squint but oh, oh the pain.

A Letter to Sylvia Plath
Soul of a Dolphin, Died 1987 in Iraq

Hughs sometimes sounded jealous of animals, for being 'continually in a state of energy which men only have when they've gone mad', But women have that energy when they're mothering. If he'd observed you a little more closely instead of searching for his next Big Animal Symbol, he might have noticed this, and done justice to the animal with whom he was sharing his bed.
You will never know how distressed the end of this made me. This one provides agency and emotion. Sprout is a lovely character and she kinda breaks fourth, it kinda feels like she's talking more to the reader than Plath sometimes. Sprout is also quite frank about the fact that she is dead and has been so for 10 years. Her manner of death isn't revealed until right near the end, and it is simultaneously one of the most painful and painless in the book. She is sassy and quite unlike most of the other protags in the novel. A Letter to Sylvia Plath is a bit of a dolphin character study a way for Dovey to discuss her knowledge of dolphins with an intelligent framing. I do appreciate that framing it is one of the better thought out ones.
I found an article talking about the military training of dolphins.

Soul of a Parrot, Died 2006 in Lebanon

A year passed.
You should never take it lightly, life in the East.
I wondered if psittacophile meant something, like francophile. The -phile suffix means “lover of,” “enthusiast for” that specified by the initial element. Another example is bibliophile. But it doesn't appear to be. I know this is simply the last chronologically and that is why it is last in the collection but to me, it is one of the weakest stories. It feels kind of generic in its themes, though there is potential to have an interesting interpretation when it comes to true love and loyalty. I mean on the loyalty and love on the level that is usually reserved for dogs.
These technologies are developed faster then humans have time to assimilate what they mean — they outstrip man morally in the end, stunning them into submission, and they drag the rest of the world's species along for the ride. — From 'A Letter to Sylvia Plath'

Read for godzilla-reads' Simple Reading Challenge. Filling the August May prompt: "A Book with an Animal Being the Main Character"
I'm cheating here because it could also suit May's prompt (Read a Short Story/ Essay Collection) but I really wanted to use this for the animal main character prompt. Unfortunately, this is likely the only time I'll be able to get Only the Animals this year, so here we are. You have to admit it is a fairly perfect fit for the prompt. The animals are the primary characters, the point of view characters. I have plans for the Short Story Collection though Sanctuary a fanfic collection fully endorsed and published by the originating author.

A representative gif:

October 6, 2014
This book is an unusual take on animal-human encounters, both playful and serious.

Ten animal souls tell the stories of their lives and deaths in human conflicts of the past century, but they also reflect on, and pay homage to, authors who have written about animals in some shape or form during the same time span.

It starts with a camel sitting across the campsite from the great Australian author Henry Lawson as he tells ghost stories, and ends with a parrot named Barnes (after the English author Julian Barnes) being abandoned by his owner in Beirut during the bombings of 2006.
A mussel speaks of its death in the Pearl Harbour bombings, an elephant from the 1987 Mozambique civil war, a bear of its death during the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict of 1992. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly sad, whilst others are a bit quirky and some are quite amusing.

This book appears to be a collection of short stories, but actually reads like a novel, a fable.

Having lost a pet earlier this year, I had to occasionally take a break after some chapters – particularly after the first one when I realised what I was in for. But I kept going back because the writing is simply stunning. Each story, or chapter, takes on the tone of the authors to whom homage is being paid. Each requires an adjustment to changes in place, time and the differing consciousness of the animals. Each story is self-contained, but the stories layer upon one another into a coherent whole which, whilst often uncomfortable, is yet a wholly beautiful read.

My favourite story is “Somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me”: a mussel’s journey to Pearl Harbour – which is an hilarious reinterpretation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Let me tell you I prefer this version to Kerouac’s!

And this is what Dovey is hoping to do – looking at these terrible conflicts of the bloodiest century of human and animal history differently she hopes that we might find our way back to feeling something visceral about all that suffering.

Some stories are based in part on real animals who have lived and died in a time of conflict: the bear soul’s story is inspired by the true story of the Polish soldier bear, Wojtek, who fought alongside his compatriots in World War II; the dolphin soul’s story is based on real-life accounts of the use of dolphins in warfare by the US Navy.
She uses the ability of animals to take us beyond the pale of normal empathy and weaves together themes around human-animal encounters, animal consciousness, the futility and shame of warfare, the inevitable damage we do to other species while destroying one another and the hopefully redemptive power of writing, and reading.

An animal's-eye view of humans at our brutal, violent worst and our creative, imaginative best, it asks us to find our way back to empathy not only for animals, but for other people.
This is a beautiful, evocative, heartbreaking, poignant read.

Reader Development Librarian
Profile Image for Justin.
467 reviews22 followers
March 2, 2022
re-reading the binti trilogy has sparked a revisit to this review - i am already very confident i will be giving it 4 stars, as it is really good, and i just can’t see this collection as genuinely being just a star away from that trilogy. it’s for that reason i am lowering my rating from 3 stars to around 2 stars. i consider around 4/10 stories in this collection to be genuinely good and enjoyable, which just doesn’t cut it for a published short story collection. i also adjusted a few stories individual ratings to better reflect my thoughts.

‘i, the elephant wrote this’ is by far the best story in this collection, which i think is due to the completely natural blend of of human history and myth with an animal community. unfortunately, the elephant story was the only story to achieve such a feat.

full story ratings and reviews under the spoiler tag.
Profile Image for Bronwyn.
35 reviews8 followers
July 31, 2017
I was blown away by the imagination and creativity in these stories. I'm a recent convert to short fiction, and I think maybe I've been spoiled by having discovered some masters of the genre early on in my exploration. By using ten animal narrators in this collection, Ceridwen Dovey holds a mirror up to ourselves and asks what it means to be human. It's a premise that, in the hands of a less experienced writer, could easily have fallen flat or come across as twee or child-like. But there are no magical talking story-book characters here. There's the cat who once belonged to French writer Colette who ends up in the trenches in World War I; the freewheeling mussels who hitch a ride on the hull of a ship to Pearl Harbour; a tortoise who lived with the Tolstoys, Virginia Woolf, and Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) before joining the Russian space program; and the dolphin (who knows passages from Douglas Adams from memory) who trains with the US navy to identify underwater mines in the Persian Gulf and writes a moving letter to Sylvia Plath about motherhood. It all sounds a bit crazy and far-fetched when reduced to plot summaries, but the stories are the opposite of whacky -- the writing fizzes with vibrancy, humour, and sometimes melancholy, and when I reached the end I just wanted to be able to ring the author for a long friendly chat about her research and her writing process, to get inside the mind that came up with these fascinating stories. I especially loved all the references to great literary figures, but it's not necessary to be familiar with their work to appreciate the quirky genius that lies between the pages of 'Only the Animals'. As I work on my own (vastly inferior) writing, I know I will return to this collection to figure out how Dovey not only made this work, but came up with some of the best short stories I've ever read. One of the review quotes on my copy says "I was unprepared for the anarchic brilliance of this wonderful book". Ditto.
Profile Image for Blodeuedd Finland.
3,405 reviews292 followers
August 27, 2015
This is a book about animals. And they all get a chapter of their own.

The first one about a camel, well not a lot happened there.

The second one about a cat was better, and sad! A cat at the Western front. Meeting another cat, thinking about the owner, all while surviving.

Then we had such a creepy tale about a chimpanzee writing letter to the wife of the man who trained him to act human. I mean it was really good, but creepy.

The next story was about a dog, whose owner was into Hinduism, Buddhism, and the dog started to think about karma. Interesting.

Then came the beatnick mussel on the road. Well written.

After that a sad tortoise who met interesting people before going into space.

Then an elephant story, they are just so sad you know. They try to live their lives while people are at war.

The bear story was not any happier. It took place in Sarajevo. The bear starved while another bear told a story about a prince.

The next one was about dolphins trained for war. All stories start with the death date of the animal, so they are not happy.

And last, about a parrot. The end hit me there, why oh why.

Animals forgotten while people are at war. Animals trained for war. Animals just trying to live. I liked these stories. They are sad, thoughtful and quite wonderful. And they worked as short glimpses into a life of an animal.
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews246 followers
October 30, 2014
I took a while to adjust to the idea of this book. Each story is told from the perspective of an animal, with a full and human-like consciousness - you have to let go of the idea that the animals are really animals, they're observers of human interactions with complex feelings and thoughts. After a couple of stories I mentally adjusted to the whole shtick and just went along with it - by the end I was completely swept up by these stories: a Kerouac-inspired muscle heading west for adventure, Tolstoy's tortoise hanging out with Orwell and then winding up on a Russian rocket orbiting the room, a military-trained dolphin wrestling with ethics and freedom and more. They're moving, thoughtful and rich with literary and historical allusions (many of which went over my head). Give it a shot, but be prepared to take a few stories to settle into Dovey's style.
Profile Image for Sandy Papas.
163 reviews8 followers
December 29, 2014
Quiet an extraordinary book, although not as gripping as I was hoping. Stories told by Himmlers German Shephard, a twin African elephant, Tolstoys tortoise and a camel in the Australian outback ( with Lawson ) are all quite fascinating but there are a couple of slow tedious ones as well. Still, it's a unique and fascinating insight into the role animals have played in so many significant events. A must for animal lovers everywhere.
Profile Image for Leninha.
154 reviews
August 5, 2017
"Cada criatura é chave para todas as outras criaturas. Um cão sentado em uma nesga de sol a se lamber, é num momento um cão e no seguinte um instrumento de revelação."
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