Novels might be the most humanist of art forms. They became popular just as humans started to believe they were the center of life on earth, and they’ve been the go-to form ever since for writers wanting to explore the inner lives of humans. Today, though, with so much research emerging about the rich emotional lives of animals, not to mention the planetary harm caused by anthropocentrism, more novels are reflecting a new understanding of life.
In particular, three recent novels (all of which happen to have been written by women) show a rare sensitivity toward animals: Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Abby Geni’s The Wildlands, and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. The nonhumans in these novels are neither anthropomorphized nor mere ornaments. They’re characters in their own right, integral to plot and granted full emotional lives. And considering that they tap into ongoing conversations about animal rights and human-animal relationships, it’s a welcome new approach.
Aminatta Forna’s Happiness is a rich story of interconnectedness in London. American wildlife biologist Jean bumps into Attila, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma and PTSD, on one of the city’s bridges. It’s an everyday urban coincidence, though in this instance, the collision is caused by a fox crossing the bridge and becomes the first spark in a lasting relationship. This is just one of the ways in which the novel champions animals as an integral part of city life—an achievement, since London’s foxes are surely one of the world’s most reviled species. In 2014, a British newspaper ran the headline: “London council offers advice on shooting foxes, but says urban pest should be starved first and foremost.”
Jean advocates directly for foxes’ place in the city through her official study of their habits. She appears on the radio twice to state their case and risks her own safety by interrupting an illegal urban fox hunt. Meanwhile, her deepening relationship with Attila is mirrored by Light Bright, a vixen in Jean’s study, and her quest to find a mate. This strand of the story has readers rooting for the vixen (who is just a fox! that most reviled animal!) as it tugs on the heartstrings like only fiction can. Meanwhile, parakeets flit above the city, stitching together its stories: Attila watches a green feather float to the ground outside his hotel room; it could have fallen from one of the flock Jean grows attached to in a local cemetery. Through this tapestry of encounters, Forna makes the case for animals’ place in the city—and their central place in the novel.
Abby Geni has long been fictionalizing animals. Her 2013 short story collection, The Last Animal, charts humans dealing with love and loss through their relationships with octopuses, ostriches, and other animals. Her new novel, The Wildlands, is the story of nine-year-old Cora, who is kidnapped by her older brother Tucker, an animal-rights activist, for a wild, animal-liberating road trip. Tucker schools Cora in humans’ many crimes against their fellow creatures. “Half the animal kingdom would be gone in a few decades,” he tells her. “Who’s destroying their habitats? Humans. Who’s killing them for sport? Humans.” The novel’s structure, then, is built around the emotional lives of animals in captivity and Tucker’s attempts to relieve their suffering—for instance, when he sets off a bomb in a local cosmetics factory to release its test animals or shoots the owner of a network of battery chicken farms.
Tucker is driven to this lap of liberation by his despair at the anthropocene mass extinction; he rails against “the Age of Humans,” the great human degradation of life on earth. This echoes Attila, the psychiatrist and PTSD specialist in Forna’s Happiness, who considers, “A society went numb…as often from being battered by fate as from never being touched…They lived in terror of what they could not control and in their terror they tried to control everything, to harness the wind.”
Meanwhile, the narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend seems equally disgusted by the human society that surrounds her. The human, a writer and teacher, inherits a Great Dane when a close friend and one-time lover dies by suicide. She’s less than keen on accepting the huge dog into her tiny New York apartment, with its no-pets policy. Soon enough, though, she’s saying, “The more I live with Apollo, the more convinced I am that…we humans don’t know the half of how dogs’ brains work. They may well, in their mute, unfathomable way, know us better than we know them.”
The Friend is no work of activism; it’s a highly literary novel about grief, the inextricability of love and loss, and the sorry state of the world of letters today. Yet what we see emerging between Apollo and the narrator is a truly caring, reciprocal relationship in which each comforts the other in their grief. Apollo, it turns out, enjoys being read to and often brings the narrator a novel when she feels low—the best heart cure for both woman and dog. Apollo ends up being more of a domestic partner than a wild animal, but it’s still remarkable that in über-civilized and famously lonely New York, the narrator’s most intimate relationship is with an animal.
As the narrator ponders whether there’s any value in writing at all, Apollo, the silent, gentle Great Dane, emerges as a wise and dignified counterpoint to her social circle of writers, operating on a level deeper than language. “Remember, I’m only human, and nowhere near as sharp as you are,” the narrator tells Apollo.
The three disparate novels find common ground in this idea—that animals are not only worthy of empathy; they have much to teach us, disconnected as we are. Through Apollo, Light Bright, and the crocodiles, polar bears, zebras, and other animals that Tucker and Cora set free, three wildly different novelists find ways to bring us closer to the wildness of life on earth.