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In This Collection Of Animal Stories, The Only Winner Is The Parrot

Here's the good news about Ceridwen Dovey's short story collection Only the Animals: It contains a genuinely moving story told from the point of view of a parrot. That's obviously not an easy thing to pull off, but Dovey manages it beautifully. The bird, adopted by an American divorcée who has moved to Beirut, makes for an intriguing narrator, and the story is clever, biting and wistfully sad.

Now here's the bad news. The other nine stories in Dovey's book, all featuring animal narrators, range from mediocre to awful. Only the Animals is a high-concept collection that only a very small number of authors could possibly pull off. Dovey is not one of them.

The book's title is taken from the author Boria Sax, who wrote "What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know." It's the kind of high-minded quotation that doesn't really say anything — a fair, if possibly unanswerable, question followed by a hedged non-sequitur. Dovey uses it as an epigraph to one of her stories, which seems fitting — if there's an overarching theme in this book, it's nothing more than "Animals are good and war is bad." And fair enough, to a point. But everybody knows that.

The stories in Only the Animals are all narrated by creatures that have somehow been affected by humans at war. "Hundstage" is told from the point of view of a dog, once owned by a Nazi leader, now cast out on its own in Poland. The dog can communicate with the souls of animals that have died, which leads to dialogue like this: "'Tell me, pig, how did you die?,' I asked. 'That's a personal question,' the pig said.'" It's likely meant to come off as playful, but it reads as juvenile and lazy.

The conceit of the book means that Dovey doesn't leave herself much room to maneuver through the narratives. The first story, "The Bones," is narrated by a camel in Australia. Most of the story's plot, such as it is, is conveyed by a human addressing the camel for no discernible reason. The story is shoehorned into Dovey's bizarre concept, and it just doesn't work. It doesn't help that the camel's inner monologue is embarrassingly stilted: "But I do exist, I thought. I may have oval red blood cells, three stomach compartments, and urine as thick as syrup, but I exist."

Dovey's narrators are, for the most part, interchangeable; they all sound exactly alike. That goes for the cat in "Pigeons, a Pony, the Tomcat and I" (the author has a thing for twee titles). The cat, who is apparently a lesbian, used to belong to the novelist Colette, whom she idolizes. She's not happy with all of her owner's decisions, however, at one point criticizing her marriage to a military man: "Why she then picked the sergeant, who is drawn to the masculine space of politics and warmongering in an increasingly exclusionary manner, I don't understand." It's one thing to suspend one's disbelief long enough to accept a feline narrator; it's another entirely to pretend that sentence could or should exist anywhere outside of a sociology textbook.

The most inexplicable story in Only the Animals is "Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would Be Handed to Me," which is narrated by a beatnik mussel who finds his way to Pearl Harbor in 1941. (Spoiler alert: it gets bombed.) It's difficult to express what a terrible idea this is — it might be the one concept that literally no author could pull off. In case you're curious about what a bivalve doing a Jack Kerouac impression might sound like, it's this: "I wasn't so sure this was what we'd been searching for, this life of plenty. But it felt pretty damn good, damn damn damn good, gorging and humping ad infinitum." That is one of the better sections of the story.

But then there's "Psittacophile," the parrot story, which works despite its awful title. It's enough to prove that Dovey has talent when she's not trying to do too much and when she sounds natural. It's the one story in the book that doesn't lecture the reader, and it succeeds because of its deliberate understatement — for the first time in the collection, the narrator sounds like it could actually be an animal, and not a human talking through one. It's high-concept, sure, but it's quiet and intelligent and successful.

Unfortunately, it's the last story in the book, and if you read it in order, you have to endure the wannabe-Kerouac mussel and a dolphin who writes a letter to the late Sylvia Plath before you get to it. Dovey obviously has a unique imagination, but Only the Animals is a sad, mind-boggling mistake.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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