A Writer’s Bestiary

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A few months ago I was giving a talk to a group of students. Afterwards one of them asked if the baboon relationship in my book White Lightning has anything to do with Jody’s fated relationship with a deer in The Yearling, by Majorie Kinnan Rawlings. At the time I denied it, but I now think it a perceptive question. At about the age of 12, I was deeply moved by the book. When the deer has to be killed it is a rite of passage for Jody, tragic but also necessary to growing up and understanding the harshness of life. In my book, the death of the baboon is the end of innocence for the narrator, even though he is middle-aged. When I began to think about the question, I realized that I had read scores of children’s books with animal themes and had been profoundly influenced by them. Graham Greene made the point that we never again read in the same way we read before the age of 14. Later we look for reflections of ourselves and our views in novels.

Reviewers and interviewers have pointed out that animals often feature in my books. When asked why, I have answered that I believe animals are repositories for human emotions, or that animals have symbolic resonances. Both are true, of course, but there are gradations of truth. As Anthony Powell remarked, the opinions you give in interviews are like the kit kept in the barracks – for inspection only. The accepted wisdom is that animals in fiction have three main roles. The first is exemplary: animals teach us about human virtues.

And so fables, from Aesop onwards, have been a popular form of instruction for children. In many societies animal tales prefigure anything that may be called literature. The reasons are clear: as The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books says, ‘the gap between animals and children can be used to make moral points clearer by analogy, to say strong things with a degree of protection and to provoke laughter and ridicule. Above all the gap between animals and

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About the contributor

Justin Cartwright grew up in South Africa, where a number of his novels are set. Before devoting himself to writing he made documentaries, as well as wildlife films for the BBC and ITV.

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