Critical Animal Studies positions animals as subjects of thought and activity, attempting to understand how humans represent and, often, anthropomorphize, animals. From studies of animal behaviour to viral streaming programs on big cats in America, humans and the beings we call animals have consistently interfaced. Animals have been used to develop vaccines, assist in therapy and have been a source of food, entertainment, and companionship for humans. This relationship has been documented in a long literary tradition of representing the animal and its significance to the human—they have been divine beings, satirical representations of our flaws, political caricatures, and subjects of scientific interest. The convention of representing the animal is continued in both Pamela Korgemagi’s debut novel The Hunter and the Old Woman and Rachel Rose’s collection of short stories The Octopus Has Three Hearts. Each seeks to capture the emotional nuance with which humans imagine and interact with animals, rendering complex portraits of characters, both human and animal.
The Hunter and the Old Woman is an evocative tale of two beings and the strange compulsion that catalyzes the crossing of their paths. Korgemagi’s novel follows the Old Woman, a panther who has taken on mythic status within the town that springs up outside her territory. However, one of the strengths of Korgemagi’s representation of the Old Woman is that her life is chronicled apart from that of the town and humans, which for a large part of the novel are absent from the cougar’s life. Instead, in lush and uncompromising prose, Korgemagi depicts the Old Woman’s life wandering in her woods interacting with other cougars. There is a depth of emotion in Korgemagi’s portrayal of the Old Woman that underscores her instincts and learned behaviours. For the most part, the novel avoids anthropomorphizing the thoughts and feelings of the Old Woman, which instead allows it to represent the human struggle to understand and relate to the animal. She is, in her own right, an enigmatic and surreal character. This struggle to truly understand that which is unhuman is mirrored by the novel’s titular Hunter, Joseph Brandt, who, as a boy, becomes obsessed with hunting and killing the Old Woman. Brandt is immensely human in all his flaws, from tantrums as a boy to the strange and compulsive need to meet the Old Woman and achieve the impossible task of interpreting her. The vivid descriptions that constitute Korgemagi’s novel are at their finest when encouraging contemplation on nature and life. Viewing lightning, the Old Woman wonders whether it is a whole life contained in a single moment, or, if it is a piece of a larger, fuller life. These silent musings—if they can be called such—are similar to those that Brandt, and by extension the reader, entertains on the Old Woman. Is she a single, unique cougar, or does she come to stand in for something larger than herself? The chapters that reveal the Old Woman to us are so empathetic and passionate that Brandt’s life somewhat pales in comparison. That his years-long-sought-after encounter with the Old Woman is divulged from his perspective keeps the reader at a distance from the Old Woman and how the animal knows or resists knowing humanity.
The Octopus Has Three Hearts seeks to explore and understand the emotional connection that humans share with animals. In fourteen stand-alone stories, Rose establishes these connections as equal parts caring and exploitative, healing and fraught. The most poignant stories in the collection are those that fully embrace the animality of their other-than-human characters, for example “Warhol” in which a chatty parrot plays a pivotal role in the dissolution of a marriage or “White-Nose Syndrome” in which a scientist’s mourning of the bats she studies accompanies thoughts of her own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis. However, Rose also astutely folds in questions of animality within the human—affairs, addiction, mental illness, body dysmorphia; all these experiences that have been characterized as “beastly” are treated with compassionate and deep empathy. In this way, Rose overturns the characterization of trauma as healing through human relationships, so that a woman coping with the loss of her boyfriend finds comfort in his reptile pets as in “Revolting Beasts and Those Who Love Them.” While the stories in Rose’s collection draw on a variety of thematic concerns and human experiences, they are united by the hope, safety, or strength that comes from a reciprocal relationship between human and animal.
Each of these books offers an insightful and thoughtful engagement with the gulfs of experience that exist between humans and animals and the emotional connections that can bridge those divides, leading to a fuller understanding of what it means to be.
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