THE COUNCIL OF ANIMALS
By Nick McDonell
In my favorite childhood books, the animals always spoke. But in the books I’ve read as an adult, the talking beasts have been replaced by human characters — equally made up, though often less charismatic. Still, I sorely miss those wise, anthropic creatures, so I was delighted to open Nick McDonell’s novel “The Council of Animals” and discover some friendly critters engaged in witty banter. Here, I thought, might be a fantastic hybrid of the childlike and the mature — as its publisher once described, a “Roald Dahl meets ‘Animal Farm’” classic to be savored by all ages.
The setup is this: A small group of familiar mammal species, including a cat, a dog, a horse and a bear — plus one delusional, hyper-religious crow whose intelligence, for a member of the ingenious corvid family, appears distinctly subpar — holds a meeting to decide the fate of humanity. Humans have recently been reduced, it turns out, from billions to a dozen in the wake of an event called The Calamity. Maybe that calamity was climate change, maybe a nuclear disaster; its cause is unclear and, at this point in history, hardly needs to be specified, since the disaster possibilities before us are so richly abundant. The animals in the council, well schooled in the principles of “demoscratchy,” gather to vote on whether to kill and eat the last people or let them live.
“The Council of Animals” is a hybrid tale for sure. It has the feel of a bedtime story spun to entertain, say, a niece or nephew, sprinkled with jokes based on animals’ bodies and sounds; but there are winks and nods for older readers in Easter eggs of punster humor throughout (“Woof Point,” for instance, is the name of a prestigious military academy for dogs, a reference not tailored to child readers). The cast of characters relies on animal stereotypes and hierarchies — sly, scheming cats and obedient dogs; fine mammals at the top and unpleasant insects like cockroaches at the bottom — in line with common notions a child might be handed by her elders about wildlife. In its shape, the novel resembles an O. Henry short story or a movie like “Planet of the Apes,” with an ironic, dramatic twist at the end that’s not too surprising.