Montreal·BOOKS

If you love animals, here are 10 books for you

This month we decided to focus on some of our favourite books told from the perspective of animals. Some of the most beloved characters in fiction happen to not be human.

These books, most of them Canadian, feature beloved characters that are not human

The Bees features a central character named Flora, who is a sanitation bee. In Life of Pi, a beautiful parable of wonder ensues when a talking tiger named Richard Parker rides on a lifeboat with a boy named Pi. (Arizona O'Neill)

This month we decided to focus on some of our favourite books told from the perspective of animals. Some of the most beloved characters in fiction happen to not be human.

Authors use animals for all sorts of reasons.

Sometimes it is to heighten a metaphoric quality, such as using a dog to express fidelity. Sometimes it is to confront evil, such as using a wolf to embody wickedness. Sometimes it is to explore modes of consciousness, such as the empathic psyche of an elephant.

It is a way of looking at the natural world and the human condition in an odd, heartbreaking, and often hilarious manner.

Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis

In this book, 15 dogs in a shelter are given human consciousness to see if any of them will ever be able to find happiness. (Arizona O'Neill)

When having a conversation about novels written through the perspective of animals, as a Canadian, I immediately think of Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis.

If you have not already read it, you must.

Two Greek Gods, Apollo and Hermes, make a bet that humans can never be happy in life because of their intelligence. Animals are, by contrast, able to experience contentment because they do not have human consciousness.

To solve their debate, they give human consciousness to 15 dogs in a shelter to see if even one will be able to find happiness once endowed with this new way of thinking. It is not long before the dogs start to remind me of the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Things fall apart fast. Half of the dogs believe they should stick to their traditional behaviour whereas the other half believes in progress. Neither mode is particularly successful and heartbreak ensues.

It makes the reader reflect on society and whether the human condition precludes us from being what we consider happy.

If you are a fan of dystopias, dogs, Greek mythology, and melodrama, you've come to the right place. Whereas some books give us the perspective of animals for an amusing dip into other forms of consciousness on the planet, this book uses the technique to focus on what it means to be human.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles, by Hiro Arikawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is about the unbreakable bond that a man in Japan has with his pet cat. (Arizona O'Neill)

This has to be one of the most heartwarming stories I have ever read. We follow the life story of a man in Japan and his pet cat and their unshakeable bond.

This book captures the enormous effect a pet can have on someone's life. In Japanese culture, the image of a cat is considered good luck and this is one of the connecting themes in the book. One of the most charming aspects of this book is that it is narrated by a cat as he tries to rationalize human behaviour. And the cat's perspective creates the illusion that his owner's life has led up to them finding each other.

It is such a beautiful sentiment. We gradually find out how similar their paths of heartbreak and belonging were before their union. The man's life is so much richer for caring for his cat and vice versa.

The book shows that a cat is an independent creature. They do not rely on you but respect you when you earn their trust. And a cat's respect turns out to be loyal, unconditional and heroic. But you know … I'm a dog person.

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy

In The White Bone, the main character, Date Bed, is a young elephant that has the ability to read minds. (Arizona O'Neill)

This book is a work of intuitive genius. Gowdy follows a troupe of elephants who are separated after poachers decimate a large number of them.

We follow a young elephant, Date Bed, who has the ability to read minds as she navigates the world of the desert, looking for her kin. We also follow Tall Time who is looking for Mud, the love of his life, and is a fortune teller himself, able to read signs and omens.

The book explores the idea of memory and thought as places one can visit. The characters are so well described and doomed and beautiful. Gowdy creates nasty characters who easily rival those of Rudyard Kipling. She uses animals to describe different modes of empathy and thought, and by reading it, these animal consciousnesses expand your own.

The Bees by Laline Paull

The protagonist of this book is Flora, a sanitation bee. The story is a 'touching portrait of motherhood,' say Heather and Arizona O'Neill. (Arizona O'Neill)

The power of this book lies in its central character, a sanitation bee, named Flora. She refuses to stick to her station in life, and continually finds herself fulfilling tasks that don't belong to her. She finds herself being a companion of the Queen Bee, a warrior against wasps, and a gatherer of nectar.

The strangest aspect of this book is that you, at times, entirely forget you are reading about bees. Flora seems like a spunky girl from a fairy tale, or Melanie Griffith from Working Girl, outsmarting everyone around her, despite, or because of, her hapless charms and ambitions. The relationship of Flora to her eggs is a radiant and touching portrait of motherhood.

The Archy and Mehitabel Omnibus by Don Marquis

Published in the 1920s, The Archy and Mehitabel Omnibus is told in the voice of a poet who was reincarnated as a cockroach. (Arizona O'Neill)

While we are on the subject of insects, I read this book decades ago and adored the conceit. Published in the 1920s, it is told in the voice of a poet who was reincarnated as a cockroach for his sin of writing in free verse. His dearest companion is a cat who claims to be Cleopatra.

It is a hilarious ode to the roach-like qualities and unassailable egos of poets, who write about the heavens and all its great subjects, despite their ridiculous ways. Marquis also uses a cat to capture the pretensions of bohemian fashionistas with not a smidgen of talent, but with so much pride and charisma, everyone wants to be around them.

By turning figures of the art world into animals and insects, Marquis is able to satirize their failings and celebrate their bold accomplishments.

French Exit by Patrick deWitt

In French Exit, a cat embodies the spirit of the main character's dead husband. (Arizona O'Neill)

While we are on the subject of reincarnation, Patrick DeWitt's latest book features a cat who supposedly embodies the spirit of the main character's dead husband.

A wealthy widow and her middle-aged son, after experiencing financial ruin, head off to Paris on a ship, taking their less than beloved cranky cat.

The cat runs away in Paris and mutters miserably and hilariously to himself through a city he, not having an ounce of romanticism in him, can't appreciate.

DeWitt's use of a cat takes his critique of upper class lassitude to absurd heights.

Catboy, by Benji Nate

Be careful what you wish for. In Catboy, cat owner Olive wishes upon a shooting star that her cat could be a person. (Arizona O'Neill)

Ah, we are back on cats! Olive loves her cat and considers him her best friend. One night, when a shooting star is flying over, she wishes that her cat could be a person like her.

The next morning he has turned into "Catboy."

In her excitement, she dresses him in her cute clothes and takes him out to a party to meet her friends. Olive, however, gets upset when Catboy is the center of attention and seems to be making friends without her. He then starts to make plans of his own and becomes autonomous which drives her crazy.

She willed him into life and she expects him to only care for her and only do what she says. But Catboy just wants to live life, and does not mean to upset her.

This is can be seen as a commentary on how we treat our partners and sometimes our friends. Being too possessive is what pushes the people we love away. The idea that we can ever own or create or take credit for another person is an obnoxious fallacy. No person can ever be a pet.

This really is a brilliant graphic novel that makes you smile. And the drawings are both adorable and edgy.

Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey

In Heartbreaker, the author uses a dog to try to capture the essence of unconditional love. (Arizona O'Neill)

This book is a triptych of sorts. Each section is a monologue spoken by a different voice: a young girl named Pony, a teenage boy named Supernatural, and a dog.

Each character expresses their love for Pony's mother, the dog's owner, who walks out into the cold and disappears one night.

The dog's section is truly a killer. Dey uses a dog to try to capture the essence of unconditional love. And, of course, isn't it better to use a dog than a human for this?

Maus, by Art Spiegelman

In this graphic novel about surviving the Holocaust, Jewish people are drawn as mice and the Nazis as cats. (Arizona O'Neill)

One of the most powerful examples of animals in literature has to be Maus. In this graphic novel about Spiegelman's father's survival in Auschwitz, he draws the Jewish people as mice and the Nazis as cats.

The anthropomorphism of the animals plays off the stereotypes used against the Jews during the Second World War. It manages to capture the divide enforced by Nazi Germany to turn people against Jews. It also plays with the ideologies that the Germans had at the time.

Drawing them as cats makes it seem like it is their nature to hunt the mice down. In one of the scenes in the book, his parents are in hiding and trying to pass off as Poles, who are represented as pigs. His parents wear pig masks that tie by strings in the back to camouflage themselves.

To the reader it is obvious they are wearing masks, but no one in public seems to notice, thus illustrating the triviality of labels.

Spiegelman uses animals to show how the Nazis attempted to rob people of their right to see themselves as human.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

In Yann Martel's popular book, a talking tiger rides on a lifeboat with a boy named Pi. (Arizona O'Neill)

You'll notice a lot of Canadian novels popping up on this list. That is because there is a rich mine of animal metaphors in our literature.

In Martel's book, a talking tiger named Richard Parker rides on a lifeboat with a boy named Pi, and a beautiful parable of wonder follows.


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About the Author

Heather and Arizona O'Neill

CBC Homerun Book Columnists

Heather O'Neill is an award winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Montreal. She is Arizona's Mom. Arizona O'Neill is a filmmaker and avid reader who lives in Montreal. She is Heather's daughter. Follow them on their Instagram @oneillreads

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