I read this novella because it won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it as extraordinary, insightful, and original as suggested by the juries’ citations. It gets only 3 Stars from me.
The book begins with Hermes and Apollo discussing “what it would be like if animals had human intelligence” and Apollo betting that animals “would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.” This bet leads them to grant human consciousness and linguistic skills to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist their new consciousness, fearing the loss of canine pack mentality, and want a return to their old instinct-driven ways, and those who embrace the change. And human intelligence does not necessarily foster dog/human relationships; only a poodle named Majnoun ends up forming a real bond with a human.
The book does offer some interesting speculation about how dogs see the world – a place of almost overpowering sensual experiences, especially of the olfactory kind: “There was, first, the lake itself: sour, vegetal, fishy. Then there was the smell of geese, ducks and other birds. More enticing still, there was the smell of bird shit, which was the kind of hard salad sautéed in goose fat.” And the dogs’ observations about humans point out some of the absurdities of human behaviour: “it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that brought status? If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?” Having a dog companion, I found myself agreeing that my behaviour towards her might be interpreted as condescending.
The setting of Toronto will have added appeal for some readers, especially since actual street and place names are used. These names are somewhat disconcerting, however: how would the dogs know these? I agree with a review in the National Post which suggests that the author “misses out on an opportunity to let the dogs have a stab at naming their own world” (http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/andre-alexis-fifteen-dogs-reviewed-speaking-truth-to-happiness).
The book addresses questions like “What . . . did it mean to be human?” and “what it meant – if it meant anything at all – to be a dog.” Is human intelligence a gift or just an “occasionally useful plague”? What is the value of human consciousness if, as one of the dog argues, humans are so limited in their perceptions? Does awareness of one’s death hinder happiness? What is the connection between abstract thoughts and language?
The problem is that I found that the philosophical musings often overshadowed the storyline. The book is more like a series of anecdotes about the fate of each of the fifteen dogs. Only Majnoun’s story and that of Prince, the dog poet, really held my interest. And though it allows us to see the world from a different perspective, the book does not provide profound insights. I have to read the other books on the shortlists of the Giller and Writers’ Trust awards to determine if I agree with the judges’ decisions, but I don’t see Fifteen Dogs as exceptional in quality.