Given its title, André Alexis’s new book Fifteen Dogs was bound to pique my interest. Luckily, the humans at Coach House Books lent the Lady a digital advanced reading copy so that we could review it.
This modern apologue surprised and delighted us. The story opens when the gods Hermes and Apollo, bored and looking for amusement, place a wager on whether animals, granted human intelligence, would be happier or unhappier than humans. The fifteen eponymous dogs, a mix of mutts and purebreds being held in the kennel of a veterinary clinic, are chosen as their test subjects. If even one of them dies happy, Hermes wins the bet. In an instant, Apollo transforms the unsuspecting dogs.
The dogs, of course, already possessed a common language. It was a language stripped to its essence, a language in which what mattered was social standing and physical need. All of them understood its crucial phrases and thoughts: ‘forgive me,’ ‘I will bite you,’ ‘I am hungry.’ Naturally, the imposition of primate thinking on the dogs changed how the dogs spoke to each other and themselves.
The narrative follows the dogs as they cope with this changed understanding, their ability or inability to adapt to it, and the choices they make about what to do with this newfound communicative power. Some, too tired, unintelligent, or fearful, are unable to cope with this in-between state of being not quite dog but not human either, and they die early on. Others try to reject the intelligence and attempt to re-create a canine mode of communication, while one mutt, Prince, embraces it and becomes a poet (his poems, scattered throughout the book, are a delight). Fate, breed, and the social hierarchy of the pack all play a role in determining how the dogs negotiate their changed world.
This is not to suggest that the book is an abstract philosophical exercise. The individual dogs, particularly the four who emerge as main characters—poetic mutt Prince, wily beagle Benjy, domineering Neapolitan Mastiff Atticus, and contemplative poodle Majnoun—are fully realized characters. And the story is alive with the sights, sounds, and above all, scents, of the world that the dogs encounter once they leave the clinic, a world that is new not only because they are domestic dogs now living on their own but also because their transformation renders everything strange and different. The story takes place in Toronto, much of it in High Park or near the beach, and the Toronto that emerges offers a contrast to notion of the city as “New York run by the Swiss,” as it was once described by Peter Ustinov. The city seen through the dogs’ eyes is full of danger, from other dogs and from humans.
Because the bet between Hermes and Apollo depends on whether even one of the dogs dies happy, by necessity fifteen deaths occur over the course of the story. Death when it comes may be violent, or quiet or desperately lonely, but it is never handled sentimentally. By the end of this short novel, the story had made us think about the nature of love, the sanctuary of art, the need for lasting. Like the Greek classics from which it draws, Fifteen Dogs can be fanciful, solemn, ribald, and sorrowful; like them it envelops a moral argument in an entertaining tale.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis is available from Coach House Books in paperback and e-book formats.
This review is part of the Around the World Reading Challenge, 2015.
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