Understanding how we engage with the creatures who share our planet seems to me a crucial human task in this dire portion of the Anthropocene. In my last two novels, I’ve pondered this in different ways. In Nineveh, human figures are literally overwhelmed by the multifarious beings that share the urban space with them (beetles, in particular). It’s about being in a relationship with the natural world, even if it creeps us out. My last novel, Green Lion, is a more sombre look at the other side of that coin: in a world rapidly emptying of species, we yearn for closer kinship with creatures we may never understand – and who we may well destroy before we get a chance to know them.
Our interactions with animals are many and various, ranging from devotion to a pet goldfish, say, to the raw violence that take place in a dogfighting ring or factory farm. The relationships I’m drawn to, and have chosen to highlight below, are intimate, enigmatic and mostly benign, characterised by hopeful longing for communion with minds and bodies like but unlike our own.
I’ve limited myself. No birds, as I note with relief that Nicholas Royle has covered the territory in his Top 10 books about birds; and Karen Joy Fowler did the heavy lifting for me in her excellent Top 10 about intelligent animals. (And by heavy lifting I mean Moby-Dick, whose bulk looms under the surface of so many of these tales of longing and pursuit, including my own.)
1. Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart
Between 1759 and 1763, when Smart was confined to an asylum for the insane, he produced this glorious, 1,200-line song of praise for the Creator and all of Creation. I had been familiar with the much-anthologised, extremely charming section devoted to his cat, Jeoffry, but it was only recently that I read it all. It consists in part of a recitation of Biblical figures twinned with animals or plants, and each line is a jewel. “Let Ucal bless with the Cameleon, which feedeth on the Flowers and washeth himself in the dew”!
2. The Soul of the Ape by Eugène Marais
Marais was a celebrated Afrikaner poet, and a dark, brilliant star who is considered a father of the study of animal behaviour. In 1905, he retreated to the Waterberg wilderness to study wild baboons. His writing is scientifically pioneering, but is also the work of a tortured poet. Movingly, Marais, who was a morphine addict and eventually killed himself, devoted a chapter The Soul of the Ape to discussing addiction and “Hesperian depression” – the tidal swell of sadness that rises in both people and baboons at close of day.
3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Two sisters raised together, one human, one not so much … Despite a wacky-sounding premise, this is a convincing, profound and heartbreaking tale that ranges widely over big themes: love, loyalty, betrayal, animal experimentation, the nature of family and of being human. Rosemary, the all-too-human narrator, is wisecracking and endearingly messed-up, plagued by guilt and complex sadness over losing her charismatic imp of a chimp sister.
4. The Hunter by Julia Leigh
This debut novel encouraged my interest in the tragic glamour of the extinct. We follow a sinister hunter, M, on a mission to hunt down the last Tasmanian tiger. This lean book gives us a primordial clash of hunter and prey in a landscape haunted by ghosts of the lost. There is a scene, where M finally sights his quarry and pursues her, her striped body flashing luminously between the trees, that will stay with me as an image of ungraspable desire.
5. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban
I’ve been a rabid Hoban fan since encountered his masterpiece, Riddley Walker. This is one of his gentlest, most profound novels. William and Neaera, in the grip of middle-aged regret and loneliness, meet through a shared obsession with sea turtles at the zoo. Together, they plot the creatures’ escape. Through contemplation of the zen-like calm of these patient, long-distance swimmers, each learns to better live in the “now” of their own lives.
6. The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll
Published in 1876, this dark and irresistibly rhythmic nonsense poem follows a crew of 10 eccentrics on a hunt for the fabled Snark, which turns out to be the far more fatal Boojum. I treasure my little copy of this book with pictures by Tove Jansson – a dream team author/illustrator matchup. But it’s Henry Holiday’s unsettling original illustrations that really help deliver the signature Lewis Carrolleffect: enchanting absurdity, with a pinch of genuine dread. “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
7. Let Sleeping Vets Lie by James Herriot
Who doesn’t love a Yorkshire vet? Alf Wight’s “little cat-and-dog stories”, as he called them, were affable portraits of a traditional farming life, where people lived and laboured alongside working animals, rapidly giving way to mechanisation. And they were funny. I remember cackling at an episode in which the good doctor puts a dourly unimpressed farmer in his place by plucking a tumour from a cow’s bottom (it is possible I misremember) with naught but his bare hand and a jovial manner.
8. Amigo by Byrd Baylor
If I could only pick one kids’ book for this list, I choose Amigo, which I compulsively borrowed from the library as a child, even before I could read it myself. The story is simple and sweet: Francisco wants a playmate, but his parents cannot afford a dog. Amigo is a prairie dog, and similarly lonesome. Each set out to tame the other. I had a crush on both boy and prairie dog, beautifully rendered in Garth Williams’ delicate illustrations, and the equality of their friendship struck me as revolutionary and just.
9. Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight by Ursula K Le Guin
Myra is the sole survivor of a plane crash. She is rescued and led through the Oregon desert by a talking coyote – a marvellous, tricksy and somewhat unhinged but protective creature who takes the child into her ramshackle home, in a village of animals who appear as curious beast-human hybrids. They are friendly, brutal, earthily sexual, a bit mad – but saner, perhaps, than those in the manic human world. A story in part about what we lose and gain when we leave childhood’s magical wilderness behind and enter adulthood, as Myra must at last do, too.
10. /Xam texts from the Bleek and Lloyd archive by //Kabbo, /Han#kass’o and others
These myths and life stories were dictated to the philologists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the late 19th century by men jailed in Cape Town’s Breakwater prison. The language, traditions and way of life of San hunter-gatherers were being brutally obliterated, so this record is precious. Originally filling 12,000 notebook pages, it has been published in various forms, including poetic adaptations such as Antjie Krog’s The Stars Say Tsau. They speak of a world in which animals were potent figures in human lives, and where distinctions between people, creatures, spirits and things were fluid: lions become stars, springbok sing their children to sleep and Mantis is a god.