8 Grown-Up Novels with Animal Narrators
Kira Jane Buxton, author of "Hollow Kingdom," recommends fiction that makes animals the mouthpiece of human angst
One is never supposed to buy a book for its cover, but I’ll come clean and admit that I’ve purchased many a novel because of the animal gracing its face. I own an inordinate number of books that have “wolf” in the title and no actual wolves in them. I can’t help myself, I’ve always been crackers about the creatures of the natural world, seeking out their company in life and in literature. Close encounters of the animal kind leave me wondering about what they’re thinking, enjoying their individual idiosyncrasies, and pondering our place in the natural world.
My debut novel, Hollow Kingdom, is narrated by a snarky domesticated crow named S.T. The time I’ve spend with the two wild crows I’ve befriended helped inspire some of my crowtagonist’s behavior and antics. As I wrote from the perspective of a crow, I read voraciously about the natural world, but felt I had to avoid animal-narrated books because I didn’t want to be influenced as I developed the unique voices of various animals.
Now that Hollow Kingdom is about to take its flight into the world, here are a few favorite animal-narrated books I love, and one that is winking at me from my TBR list and that I’m chomping at the bit to get to.
Mink River by Brian Doyle
I was first introduced to the beautiful mind and powerful words of Brian Doyle through his stunning essay, “Joyas Voladoras.” His novel Mink River is equally as beautiful —an experimental and literary masterpiece with a riparian and lyrical musicality. Oregon is a character, the river is conscious and everything is braided together as in the gossamer web of life. Of course, my favorite character is Moses, the benevolent crow.
Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile is a gorgeous and whimsically quiet novel. It’s filled with juicy lettuce leaves of wisdom shared through the sage, philosophical musings of a tortoise named Timothy (based on a real tortoise who lived in the garden of the 18th Century naturalist Gilbert White, and who was in fact a female tortoise but named Timothy because we humans hadn’t figured out how to properly sex a tortoise at that time in history). A favorite few lines: “My voice would shatter his human solitude. The happiness of his breed depends upon it. The world is theirs to arrange. So they tell themselves.”
I loved the worldview from the philosophic Timothy and found the tortoise-approved pace of this book so radically refreshing. It serves as a beautiful reminder for us to slow down and reconnect to the natural world. I liken it to another book (a human-narrated memoir) that maneuvers at a beautiful and contemplative pace on sentences to be savored—The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Bailey.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
An indisputable childhood classic, Watership Down was my first experience of a “first person rabbit point of view” and I adored it. As a child, I appreciated that it delved into dark places and didn’t leave me feeling patronized. I recently read that many readers have long suspected that Watership Down is an allegorical tale—religious, political and otherwise. According to his daughters, Adams’ hilarious response to this was “Rubbish! It’s just a story about rabbits.” Quite right.
The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy
This novel is a little heavier than the other animal-narrated novels on this list. An incredibly creative novel told from the perspective of a family of African elephants, The White Bone takes a deep dive into elephant society, exploring their memory, culture, rituals, mythology and the way they communicate. It openly tackles the infuriating devastation caused by ivory hunters and a parched landscape; the elephants must travel far and face terrible odds to survive. The White Bone is at once hopeful, heartbreaking, wondrous and wise.
The Bees by Laline Paull
Described as “The Handmaid’s Tale but with bees”, this novel follows the trials, trails, and tribulations of Flora, a humble sanitation bee, as she moves on up the sticky social ladder of the hive. Her differences (she is a larger, darker bee than most) put her at great risk amongst the hive, as “deformity is evil, deformity is not permitted.” Flora’s differences might be the very thing that saves her as she moves on up in the world, from sanitation, to the nursery, and finally into the inner circle of the supreme ruler, the Queen bee. A note: crows are villains in this novel, but I have to forgive it—they’re not incredibly benevolent to bees. I have witnessed this firsthand.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
I would be remiss in not giving a deep cart-horse nod to Orwell’s political satire. I studied this book in school and penned many an essay about the allegorical foibles of human society and Orwell’s commentary on communism in Russian and the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. I undoubtedly also wrote about how I wished I lived in a society ruled by animals and I’m quite sure that it was Animal Farm that sparked my love of satire. “Four legs good! Two legs bad!” is still something I intermittently chant at my long-suffering husband.
The Art of Racing In The Rain by Garth Stein
I defy you not to fall in love with canine narrator, Enzo, who believes that he will be reincarnated as a human, but believes in his human above all else. Enzo tells the story of his relationship with Denny, a Seattle car dealer and aspiring race car driver as they navigate the ups and downs of Denny’s anthropocentric existence. Enzo’s narration exudes heart, love, loyalty, a little mischief, and a beautiful story of true friendship as only man’s best friend can tell it. It’s well worth a read or a reread just in time for its movie release. The Art of Racing In The Rain is beautiful and a shimmering reminder that sometimes it’s our four-legged companions who teach us how to be our best selves.
Me Cheeta: The Autobiography by James Lever
I love this satirical take on the Hollywood autobiography as told by Cheeta, the infamous chimp from the Tarzan movies. Cheeta’s wit and commentary is scythe-sharp as he recounts his Hollywood adventures now at the ripe old age of 76, while retired and living in Palm Springs. I laughed, I cried, and I trusted this silver screen veteran to give me the truth about the golden stars and bright lights of Tinsel Town, including some stark truths about substance and animal abuse. This is my favorite Hollywood memoir and without question, the greatest chimpanzee autobiography of all time.