Animal Behaviour by Amanda McLeod
Each of Amanda McLeod’s stories tells of the human experience, exploring some facet of life, love, parenthood, via some curious fact about animal behaviour, reflected in the titles. It’s a clever, interesting idea, and the work itself more than backs up the slightly jokey, novelty feel of the theme. This is a flash fiction collection divided into three sections – In water, on land, in the sky. Vaguely reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – How the whale got his throat, the camel his hump, etc, a brief glance of the contents’ page offers us some surprising facts about animals’ lives: Goldfish go pale if kept in darkness; Horses can sleep standing up; Butterflies taste with their feet.
The collection comprises 24 tiny stories, each perfectly formed, with fully developed plot and characterisation, and beautiful, sensuous language. It takes real skill to make you feel and care for a character in only a few hundred words, to make you fear for their future and outcome, but McLeod manages it, over and over. These are universally human problems she describes, for all the animal themed point of contact. In Dolphins Call Each other by Name, she reflects on the pain of having your lover call you by an ex’s name: “If I cut myself by accident, it still hurts”, then proceeds to reflect upon the other names we might give each other to delight or deny – wife, mother, Doctor, Miss. It’s a poignant, thoughtful piece, interwoven with a single, simple observation, carefully told, reflective and resonant; she manages the same in each story, giving us tiny, telling truths that speak of the universal human experience.
Several of the stories consider motherhood, particularly the difficulties that may be caused when the mother-child bond doesn’t naturally, instantly materialise. In Orangutan Mothers and Babies have the Strongest Bond of all Living Things she tells us of the violent nature of an intrusive hospital birth, contrasting it beautifully with the natural rush of joy we assume we’ll feel: “I watch him, waiting for the raw avalanche of emotion to sweep my numb legs from beneath me, for my love for him to sweep me away. On the mountain of my pain, not a single pebble shifts.” Over a few pages we watch the boy become a man, cursed by his mother’s neglect: everything she cannot feel entombs her, “sand and silt into unbreakable rock”, as their story reaches a brutal, inevitable close.
There are elements of magical realism here – women’s characteristics and physical selves reflect animals so acutely that occasionally they begin to transmogrify into them. In the finest story in the collection, Goldfish go Pale if kept in Darkness, a woman trapped and isolated in an abusive relationship starts to change in appearance: “her eyes are so pale no one wants to call them blue anymore, and the iridescence has become opaque…. the fine, clear threads of her hair float around her as if suspended in water.” Her lover had kept her in the dark, and the moment he goes her radiance returns.
Thoughtful, haunting, addressing the most primitive of all emotional states – love, grief, fear, joy – this beautiful collection will delight and linger long after the reluctant closing of its final page.
© 2020 Melissa Todd
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.