Book Review: Surprisingly dark and enlightening “Fifteen Dogs”

Fifteen DogsEver wondered what your dogs would say if they could speak?

Canadian author André Alexis’s apologue (a brief allegorical fable) might shed some light on the matter. In an effort to determine whether or not human intelligence contributes to happiness, Greek gods Apollo and Hermes grant intelligence to fifteen dogs in a Toronto veterinary clinic. If even one of the dogs dies happy, Apollo will owe Hermes one year of servitude. And so begins a powerful, unpredictable, and darkly humorous exploration of canine philosophy.

Although confused at the moment of sudden intelligence, almost all of the dogs decide to abandon the clinic and never see their masters again. They are free to explore their new enlightenment. They develop a complex language of grunts and barks for precise communication, and they form a turbulent “society” with a strict hierarchy. Their personalities shine in the details, and their hobbies begin to define them. Prince, a medium sized mutt, discovers a passionate love for language, and composes poetry whenever he can. Atticus, a large mastiff, is disgusted by the new language, and strives to preserve traditional canine culture. Majnoun, an old poodle, forms a complicated friendship with human Nira, who appreciates his wisdom. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is a philosophical thought experiment. Through the explorations and misgivings of the fifteen dogs, we ask ourselves: What is the link between language and humanity? How innate are personalities? And of course, is intelligence a detriment to happiness?

Don’t be fooled by the quirky premise: this is not a whimsical, feel-good story about puppies. André Alexis writes with a sharply-honed darkness and a murderous pen that rivals George RR Martin’s. There are moments of dazzling beauty and surprising artfulness, yes, but also tragic reality and poignant social criticism. All the while he lets you truly wonder: will he actually let any of the dogs die happy?

All in all, Fifteen Dogs is an incredible feat of imagination, with an edgy philosophical premise. André Alexis deserves to be revered as one of Canada’s most talented contemporary literary authors. I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

Book review originally written for and published by Kitchener Public Library’s Etc. Newsletter.

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