This month, I'm looking at stories with animals at their heart. We are blessed to share the earth with millions of species and the potential for a story-teller is limitless. We can use animals as similes or metaphors to eke out a character's physicality or personality. We can use them to establish a sense of place or to heighten the atmosphere. We can tell stories through an animal's eyes and, in doing so, our perspective of the world changes; it allows us to explore well-trodden themes in a new light. And animals can become anthropomorphic and be used to shine a mirror up to our society - think "The Wind in the Willows" or "Aesop's Fables."
I think that stories about animals can often have a fierceness or an earthiness to them that makes them stick in the mind. For example, I can remember the characters from "The Jungle Book" much easier than I can remember the characters from "The Railway Children" despite having read both at a similar age. The destruction of the warren in "Watership Down" is more scarred on my memory than any of the horrors in "Birdsong" etc. And the six pieces I've picked out this month all share that wonderful fierceness. There is a Beatrix-Potteresque mouse, an orangutan torn between revolutionary fervour and cherishing his mate, an alligator in a pool; there are lightning bugs, seagulls, pigeons and sheep. All brilliant. All worth fifteen minutes of your time. As always, read and enjoy!
Adam Lock | Okay Donkey
There is something in the way this has been written that makes me read it in my best David Attenborough impression. It is wonderfully visual and I can easily picture the accompanying footage - the orangutan regal in the first paragraph, the camera panning out to reveal his captivity and then zooming in again to invade the intimacy with his mate. I love the line in the second paragraph - "look how the stick bends where it meets the water." It does so much to anchor the wonderful tone of voice. Adam cleverly unfurls the orangutan's plans for revolution with such an economical use of language but contrasts this beautifully with the lyrical description of life in the final paragraph - " a swirling nebulae, a nursery of stars, the Pillars of Creation reaching out light years in every direction." Equally wonderful is the way he has captured the conflicting parts of the orangutan's personality between putting the world to rights and cherishing "the mammalian warmth" of his mate.
Minyoung Lee | Moonpark Review
This piece is full of beautiful writing. I love the ebb and flow to it, the long sentences that drip descriptive details against the stark contrast of "They would always bring a ribeye steak" and "The world falls silent." There is a purposeful rhythm that builds natural crescendos ("over and over again, slower and slower as the night deepened and the potatoes softened" at the end of the second paragraph, for example). The way the lightning bugs are described is ethereal - "jellyfish dragging their flimsy tentacles through the saltiest of seas" - and there is such a sadness to the way the captured "bugs’ lights shut off, sooner than their friends’." What I really love, though, is that the story hints at so much more than what is on the page - the fourth long paragraph catapults us through time but hints back to those earlier days with the lightning bugs and I can pick out hopes, fears, loss and nostalgia amongst other things. And I'm sure each reader will come away with their own unique interpretation.
K.B.Carle | Cheap Pop
Whilst in Adam's piece, above, the orangutan is almost anthropomorphic at points, this wonderful story takes things to the next level as we are introduced to Mrs. Crumb, a Beatrix-Potteresque creation. Again, I love the way the tone of voice seems to perfectly fit the story that is being told. It has a bedtime story lilt to it in the Mrs. Crumb sections with great word choice in "mouselings", "peppermint" and "skitter". But when the point of view switches back to the woman, it is quite gritty - "cigarette butts" buried in plant pots, "roots curl [...] beneath poisoned soil." Often, in advice about creating great fiction, we are advised to hook our reader at the outset of the story and here, the opening line does that perfectly. It creates a threat that runs through the piece like a thread. The threat is ramped up through the device of the mouse's heartbeat as the reason for the woman's anger is slowly teased out. And whilst, I love the anthropomorphic Mrs. Crumb, it is easy to see this story as an allegory between someone on the poverty line and someone who has far more than they need.
Alexis Wolfe | New Flash Fiction Review
In this lovely story, we are told straight off that "she’s a strange old bird." It anchors the story, the quirky humour to it and the thematic thread of how we perceive others. It gives us, as a reader, a false impression of the narrator. And, in a way, I'd argue that the first sentence is an entire story in itself - it hints at so much. I love the humour in Alexis' writing. The observation - "The level of focus he was applying to my wellbeing was extremely distracting" - is great. It contrasts with the sadness in the following section and the almost business-like way she says, "Redundant fragments of me have been excised." I often find older people in fiction can be quite two-dimensional but Alexis has wonderfully captured the essence of her narrator wanting to pursue further adventures and to not be constrained by her age or health. Certain fragments, if taken out of context, might make us think the narrator was many years younger because of our own pre-conceived ideas and that, of course, cleverly links back to theme of perception. I love that final paragraph that ties everything together, "white hair aglow amongst a feathery cyclone."
Christopher M Drew | Smokelong Quarterly
I always appreciate it when there are several strands woven together to tell a story. Here, we have the contrast between a man's broken relationship and the slightly absurd sight of an alligator in his pool. I seem to spend a lot of time analysing opening sentences in this blog and this one stands out. "The second thing I see..." is such an interesting way to start. It suggests that, to the narrator, this second observation is the one that resonates. He is almost nonchalant about the alligator whereas the wife's hand print has led him down a melancholy path. There are flecks of back-story to explain the break-up of their relationship. There is space, in the middle, for the story to breathe through the narrator's comic imaginings. Then, we are back to the action with the alligator who has commandeered what used to be the wife's space. It is almost as if the alligator acts as a stand-in for the wife. Throughout the piece, it is a clever device to help tease out the narrator's emotions - the sadness, the anger, the guilt - before the focus shifts to the wife once more through the brilliantly charged last few sentences.
Gaynor Jones | The Forge Literary Magazine
The animals, in the first part of this wonderful piece of flash fiction, are, despite the title, very much in the background. The meat in the pan "she cannot get clean", the sheepskin rug, "the lambs bleating from the barn", "the browned wallpaper that they never got round to replacing" - these details are smothered by the gritty foreground description of sex. I love the perceptive details in here. There is something exquisitely painful in the description of swimming, "bobbing back up for air, looking for her mother at the poolside or her father who was never there." And this sadness drips though the story in the anxiety over her "too-flat stomach" and then in the "desperate cries of hunger and separation" which seem to refer both to the lambs and to her hoped-for child. In the second part, the lambs are brought into focus in heart-breaking fashion. The description, here, is just as tactile and richly-detailed as the opening. The way the woman is shunned even by the sheep seems a horribly fitting way to encapsulate her sense of loneliness and hopelessness. A wonderfully bleak note on which to end the story and my blog for this month.
If you've enjoyed this month's selection of animalistic tales by Adam, Alexis, Christopher, Gaynor, K.B and Minyoung, please let them know on Twitter...
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