The Dictionary of Animal Languages

For her first novel, Heidi Sopinka made the book's protagonist a nonagenarian specialising in animal sounds.

Heidi Sopinka

Ivory Frame is a renowned artist. Now in her 90s, the famously reclusive painter remains devoted to her work. She has never married, never had a family and never had a child. So when a letter arrives disclosing that she has a granddaughter living in New York, her world is turned upside down and the past is brought painfully to life.

Disowned by her bourgeois family, the young Ivory had gone to interwar Paris to study art, and quickly found her true home among the avant-garde painters and poets who crowd the city's cafes. In fellow painter Tacita, she finds the sister she never had. In the Zoological Gardens, she finds a subject for her art capable of fascinating her endlessly. And in Lev, the brooding, haunted Russian émigré painter fleeing the Revolution and destined for greatness, she finds the love that will mark her life forever.

But she loses all this, and more, when the Second World War sweeps away the life she has only just discovered. Now in her nineties, she is forced to acknowledge afresh all she has lost, and also to find meaning and beauty in a world defined by longing. 

Masterfully written, and emotionally charged, The Dictionary of Animal Languages is about love, grief, art and the realization that, like tragedy, the best things in life arrive out of the blue. (From Hamish Hamilton)

From the book

My eyes became her eyes, the eyes of someone who died young. Which makes them hard to live with. But Skeet doesn't know this. Or Ondine. Or Valentina even. The only one left who knows is me. 
Any eggs in the coop, Frame?
Yes, I tell him. But he hasn't heard. He's shaken out the coffee beans and ground out my voice. 
The fork tines clink rhythmically against the steel bowl like the metallic call of a long-legged grassland bird I have transcribed. I am attuned to sounds. After all the animals I have recorded, read glyphic and elemental, like songs. 

From The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka ©2018. Published by Hamish Hamilton.


Featured VideoHeidi Sopinka on her debut novel, which explores love, memory and an artist's dedication to her work.