Book Review: The Last Animal by Abby Geni
The Last Animal
Stories by Abby Geni
Counterpoint Press, October 2013
Reviewed by Alyse Bensel
Across ten varied short stories, many of which are narrated by or feature engaging and nuanced women, Abby Geni has created a world in which the barriers between the animal and human grow thin—the animal (and the animal within the human) is never discounted. Within each story, close and sometimes estranged familial are explored through the intimate relationships between biological and forged families, including mothers and sons, siblings, lost spouses and camp counselors. In addition to the animal connections between us is, perhaps, the ability to understand the animals in these characters’ lives and how they reflect their inner turmoil. Many of these characters lead internal or sheltered lives close to home, unable to escape the boundaries of their families. The oftentimes mystifying presence of animals serves as the divide between characters the reader becomes familiar with and those always on the outside of knowing. The life altering decisions these characters make ultimately tend to change the shape of their families—and their lives—forever.
In the collection’s startling opening story, “Terror Birds,” readers gain insight into both mother and son’s recounting of events that led to their expulsion as keepers of an ostrich farm in the Arizona desert. Through the narrative switching from mother (Sandy) to son (Jack), the reader pieces together Sandy’s husband’s betrayal and Jack’s need to somehow hold his parents together by freeing the ostriches from their enclosures, even as he cannot free himself when he attempts to run away. As the ostriches run free, Sandy observes how they “were everywhere, running at full tilt, trailing wakes of dust like the crisscrossing trails of airplanes” and “ran with grace, precision, and madness; they had nowhere to go and were stupefied by their sudden freedom.” Unlike the birds, who do eventually return to their pens, Sandy and Jack leave, starting a new life.
Alongside these biological family troubles are families formed through spending time with one another over the years. The collective we of “The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr” recounts their speculations on the disappearance of worshipped and adored counselor Danielle at the girls’ summer camp. The strength of this collective we comes from the cohesiveness of the group where “none of us had secrets now, not after the long nights of whispering in the cabin, hour after hour, in a kind of trance, shielded by the darkness and the unreality of the setting.” This camp, set away from the city, grants the girls permission to become something else, something larger. Years later, however, after Danielle’s disappearance, she soon just becomes ingrained into the folklore of the camp, nothing more than “a new ghost story—the love affair between two counselors that had ended with a body being dumped in the lake.”
Although not every animal, or human for that matter, is granted sharp intelligence, in “Captivity,” Mara, who works at the local aquarium, forms a close bond with the captive aquatic creatures she feeds, particularly an Octopus vulgaris. She moves through her own personal and family struggles; while moving back in with her mother, she must confront her mother’s still ever-present grief over her brother’s disappearance. Just as she is captive to her family’s past, so is the octopus Falco—who begins attacking people during feeding—captive to his surroundings. At the height of the story, after confronting her brother’s former girlfriend, Mara takes Falco out of the tank: “I allowed him to trail one tentacle over the dusty carpet. He would not let go of me, and the red didn’t entirely leave his skin, but his eyes didn’t stop roving for a moment and his tentacles were hungry for every new surface.” By the story’s end, Mara, too, is reaching out, trying to find a connection to her long lost brother and those he left behind.
Throughout The Last Animal, all of these characters try to forget but cannot. In “Terror Birds” Jack cannot erase the memory of his father having sex with a farmhand on the patio of his parent’s house. In “The Last Animal” Delilah must retrace her runaway husband’s journey across Mexico as a ritualistic vacation, destroying his last letters along the way. Across these stories is the ever-present animal, sometimes a gift and sometimes an intrusion that will not be effectively erased. Instead, they are real and must be acknowledged as a presence in these characters’ lives. The bond between human and animal—even when broken—remains ever-present, revealing the close connections we have to the often unknowable counterpoints within ourselves.
Alyse Bensel is the Book Review Editor at The Los Angeles Review and Co-Editor of Beecher’s. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Shift (Plan B Press, 2012) and Not of Their Own Making (dancing girl press, forthcoming 2014). Her poetry has recently appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Blue Earth Review, Ruminate, and The Fourth River, among others. She is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas