Fifteen Dogs – André Alexis

Having spent time in Hodges Figgis adding to The Pile on Saturday afternoon, I demolished an entire book yesterday morning, while gulping coffee and looking out at the cold November rain (cue fiddly guitar solo from Slash).

Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis was published in April of this year and has been nominated for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada which is awarded tomorrow. It starts with the gods (not dogs) Hermes and Apollo getting sloshed in a pub in Toronto and arguing the merits of human consciousness, with Apollo saying, ‘animals would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.’ They decide to place a bet, with the loser giving the winner one full earth year’s servitude, and grant human intelligence to a group of animals. On leaving the bar, they happen upon a vet’s surgery where there are fifteen dogs staying overnight, and so the dogs become the unwitting subjects of the gods’ experiment.

The ‘Dramatis Canes’ are a motley group of pure-breds and mongrels, from a teacup Poodle to a Neopolitan Mastiff, and although they would not usually socialise with each other, they must form a pack for survival. Three dogs don’t make it past the first night (including Agatha, an elderly Labradoodle who was at the clinic to be put down, and who cannot countenance a world without her mistress, so she simply refuses to leave) but the rest form an uneasy alliance, living in the local park and scavenging for food. Some dogs struggle with their newfound intelligence, hating the way it has removed them from their natural canine instincts, whereas others revel in the complexity of their thoughts and their ability to create new language.

Alexis does a wonderful job of describing the world from a dog’s point of view, especially smells and food, two of the most important components of any dog’s life. Bird shit is ‘a kind of hard salad sautéed in goose fat’ and cat food smells like ‘fish and cinders’. There is also much discussion of dominance, specifically mounting. One very funny passage describes Benjy the Beagle’s confusion when his temporary owners Randy and Clare engage in S&M or ‘sessions that smelled of cow’ where Clare assumes dominance unlike the rest of the time when Randy is clearly in control.

Given that I am a huge dog lover (I say hello to them in the street) I found this book to be charming and funny, and also very sad when the individual dogs’ demises are depicted. Although the book is slim (only 159 pages and so under two hours’ reading in my world) it is still packed with much to think about and is beautifully written. It’s highly recommended by me and a must-buy for any dog lover in your life.

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