By: André Alexis
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.
And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.
I first heard of this book when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize 2015 and then again when it won. The premise of the novel sounded interesting so I kept on the lookout for it, snatching it up immediately shortly after it won the prize before they ran out of stock or anything (in short, prevent a repeat of what happened with Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors (review)).
Upon finishing, yup, I had a lot of feels finishing this book *hearts*
Simply put, this book is just amazing, totally deserving of all the awards. Like the premise lays out, the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo set a bet to see whether an animal gifted with human intelligence would be even more unhappy than humans. They set this gift upon a group of dogs and step back to see what happens. I don’t know how to describe the “what happens” but we follow this pack of dogs as they explore these new experiences and perspectives that they’ve been granted: some become reactionary and forming a very rigid hierarchy of imitation (that’s not so low as to commit murder against the others who oppose them) to others branching out and seeking new experiences amongst humans and other creatures in the city. The range of experiences that these dogs come across are amazing and profound: from seeking freedom and independence to forming friendships and an understanding of humans to scheming ways to survive to relishing in the beauty of the world around them and the language they have been gifted with. These experiences are very much reflective of the human condition and yet within the canine perspective, which adds another lens to the situations that these dogs find themselves in. It’s touching, it’s sad, it’s thought-provoking, it can be a bit funny (namely from scenes with the gods–them mucking around always results in some lunacy and Zeus popping in and basically yelling at them/trying to clean things up a bit) and the end is just sad yet beautiful.
I realise this review of sorts isn’t much of a review but it’s really one of those books you need to pick up and read for yourself because it’s such an experience: it reads like a fable and yet so much more than that. It was easy to slip into the story and follow this pack of dogs and their various experiences, some from multiple perspectives. There’s only about 5 chapters to this book and it’s relatively slim but it packs quite the punch of emotion and range of events and instances. I love that it’s set in Toronto, recognising the streets and the neighbourhoods, but then it feels like a totally different experience/perspective to the city because it’s from the perspective of this group of dogs.
So yeah, again, not much of a review, but suffice to say I really enjoyed reading Fifteen Dogs, it deserves all of the awards it has won so far and has been nominated for. There are a lot of great quotes throughout, as well as poignant thoughts and realisations. It was interesting and thoughtful, sad and yet pretty triumphant in the joys of life. I cannot recommend this book enough, it’s a great book, not to mention a great piece of Canadian literature and indie Canadian at that* 🙂
* – I should note, the book was published by Coach House books based here in Toronto, which is not the version I linked in the Book Depository link below. If you have the opportunity to check out the Coach House edition, I strongly urge you to as simply put, it’s a beautiful book, the paper they use is very pretty 🙂 Plus, the publishing house is cool.