Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Last Animal by Abby Geni

The Last Animal is a collection of thematically linked short stories - a debut collection by a young and promising Chicago writer. In it, the relationship between humanity and the natural world come together in elegant prose.

In the first story, "Terror Birds," Lory Geni uses an ostrich farm as the background for the human drama that slowly unfolds. The story is told in first person narration by Jack, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, Sandy. The story is simple: Jack has seen his father making love to a young woman who tends the ostriches - a woman he once adored. He also knows this woman phones his father when his mother is out and that they argue. The child does not understand what he is witnesses, yet he understands its destructive nature. Similarly, the wild ostrich, a dangerous, unpredictable animal capable of killing a human if aroused, serves as a metaphor for unleashed passions. As Jack remarks: "I loved the ostriches - and all the other monsters - for what they were: sheer brute force, untempered by either conscience or consciousness." (p. 27) Although "Terror Birds" deals with themes of adultery and deception, it has no real villains. Geni is merely depicting the emotional damage wrought when love dwindles and restraint fails.

Another story, "Captivity," explores a daughter's relationship with her mother as she grieves the disappearance of her brother.  Lucy clings to hope that he is alive; her mother believes him to be dead and wishes for closure. Both women are held captive by the confusion their grief causes. "I missed my mother more," Lucy confesses, "than when we were on opposite ends of the same city...It broke my heart that two such interesting women found silence easier than speech, standing side by side in the kitchen as she grated cheese into the pasta and I chopped the vegetables, or watching television with our heads cocked at the same angle." (p. 73)

Lucy works at the aquarium (presumably Shedd Aquarium) and soon takes refuge there.  She hides at closing time and begins to roam the empty rooms at night. One of her daytime tasks is to dive into the octopus tank and feed the octopuses before live audiences. Now she seeks solace with the octopus, Falco. Geni's passages of the museum at night are among the finest in the book. The sense of loneliness the animal might be experiencing is juxtaposed with Lucy's ability to empathize with it.

"Captivity" employs humor as well as sadness. When an administrator remarks that Falco is becoming aggressive, that he almost bit someone, Lucy defends him.

They bite their prey, she says. I've never been bitten. I don't know of any divers who've been bitten.
They're poisonous, the manager remarks. I had the feeling she'd just learned this. She had degrees in marine biology, and I had field experience, so friendship was impossible between us. This discrepancy was common among the members of the administration and staff at the aquarium. The managers grouped together at lunch, no doubt grumbling about our stubbornness and absence of hard data, while we, the aquarists and underlings, bonded after hours at the dolphin pool to complain about our bosses' lack of common sense. (p. 88)

All ten stories capture the experiences of growing up, of loving people and of losing them. Each story substantiates how redemption is often found in nature - in caring for animals (domestic or wild) or in creating and tending a  garden. Ultimately, our relationship to the natural world defines our essential humanity.

The Last Animal is packed with emotionally charged and evocative stories. You need not be an animal lover to be captivated by them.

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