Quick Review: FIFTEEN DOGS by André Alexis (Coach House)

A marvellous, thought-provoking, and moving novel

— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto vet­erinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

When I first started reading Fifteen Dogs, I was worried I wasn’t going to like it. It took me longer than it should have to realize what Alexis was doing — namely, the fact that the canines in the title, while gifted with human intelligence, were not also gifted with human knowledge. It may seem like a common sense thing, but it’s not something I’ve seen in other novels in which animals are or become anthropomorphized. As a result, the first fifty pages or so were pretty blunt, and the writing didn’t exhibit the lyricism or depth that I’d been led to expect. But after that point… it really started to shine.

However, as the story unfolded, and the dogs developed, the brilliance and beauty of the novel came through. It’s a short book, yes, but it’s the ‘final’ 100 pages that really started to show me what all the fuss was about. The dogs develop their own language, their own new societal rules. Some feel the need to hark back to True Dogness, shunning new language and behaviour, and this creates the conflict in the first act. Also during the early chapters, I couldn’t help but think that some of the ideas Alexis was drawing on and discussing had been done better by Terry Pratchett with Gaspode (with a lighter touch, too) — this feeling, too, waned as the novel developed and the dogs started ‘evolving’ their own culture and sensibilities.

AlexisA-FifteenDogsUKMajnoun’s storyline, in particular, was fascinating, touching and ultimately heart-breaking. So, too, was Prince’s story, which closes the novel.

The story does a wonderful job of presenting the human condition through an alternative lens, highlighting the potential for both the beauty and brutality — the dogs’ behaviour, even those attempting to reassert their canine nature, all too often has reflection in today’s society. For such a short novel, Fifteen Dogs packs in quite a bit, not to mention quite the emotional punch at the end. To discuss it more would be to spoil the story. Needless to say, I recommend this very highly.

A must read, it’s not difficult to see why it won the Giller Prize last year.

Fifteen Dogs is published in Canada by Coach House, and in the UK by Serpent’s Tail.

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