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What Redeems Us
Three books honor the human-animal bond

Some say it’s best to choose books that would make you look good if you were to die in the middle of reading them. And while The Dog, The Call and Unsaid all qualify as such books, they also, each in their way, pull off something far more subtle and significant: these three novels gently ask whether you will feel good should you die in the middle of them. Specifically, have you done all you could? Were you a good parent, guardian, partner, husband, wife? Did you, to your end, show compassion and courage?

Kerstin Ekman’s The Dog, a mild, poetic parable about the primal will to survive, ventures sotto voce where our imaginations tend to halt and falter: what happens when a tiny puppy follows his mother into the tall pines and then gets lost? As harrowing as the account is to read, Ekman’s intimate, omniscient narration never leaves the reader bereft. On the contrary, the story arcs ever upward, kindling a warm appreciation for the heroism involved in mere survival. And as restrained as the tone remains throughout, the dog at the story’s center grows fierce before our eyes, and returns, slowly, cautiously, to harmony with a hunter, a spiritual symbiosis that never could have happened had the pup stayed closer to the hearth.

Like Ekman’s dog, the hunter at the heart of Yannick Murphy’s inventive fourth novel, The Call, experiences familial loss—he must carry on with his professional routine despite having watched his only son slip into a coma after a tragic hunting accident. Told with wry wit and unabashed anger, the story unfolds through the rural veterinarian’s call notes. Despite their formal repetition, these records shift like the sea, revealing the imperceptible adjustments made by his family as they cope—day in, day out—with their suffering.

While Ekman sparsely populates her animal’s kingdom with humans on its fringe and Murphy stations her humans at the forest’s brink, Neil Abramson’s work intermingles humans with other animals, dissolving the boundaries between; indeed, Unsaid goes so far as to question the very legitimacy of these distinctions. A masterful novel wrought with exceptional sensitivity and intelligence, Unsaid is narrated from the afterlife by Helena, a veterinarian who clings to those she left behind: her devastated widower, David; her menagerie of heartbroken pets; her colleagues and friends. David is determined to retain the structure of their former life, but the more he learns about the narrative’s shining gem, Cindy, the more things change. Cindy, a chimpanzee Helena worked with, has a level of intelligence that could expand the frontiers of communication and consciousness and a passion that reorients the lives of every last person the author introduces. Abramson deftly draws characters whose interactions represent real issues central to animal rights—dignity, quality of life and human accountability among them. Unsaid reverberates with legal and ethical relevance well beyond the emotional close of this exciting debut novel.

What all three of these writers share is an understanding that the inevitable last stop on a journey of devotion, whether to one another or to our animals, is grief. And that’s one miserable reality. So it is a welcome testament to the redemptive power of literature that Ekman, Murphy and Abramson manage to allow us, despite the desperate sadness they fearlessly portray, to feel the comfort and tenderness of our shared transience so exquisitely.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 67: Nov/Dec 2011
Elizabeth Kennedy is a freelance writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. elizabethkennedy.org

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