Can you imagine a world without animals? Would you even want to live in it? That’s the question raised in Piers Torday’s The Last Wild. Out yesterday, it’s a middle-grade read that takes place in a society where nearly all animal life has been wiped out by a mysterious virus, and everything is controlled by a monolithic corporation. The main character, 12-year-old Kester Jaynes, has been unable to speak since he was 6 years old, and has been taken away from his father to live at a school for problem children.
There, Kester learns that though he can’t communicate with humans, he can speak to animals. Before long, he and a group of companions that includes a stag, a flock of pigeons, and a cockroach set off on a quest to discover why all the animals are dying off and what they can do to stop it.
It’s a concept that proved irresistible to me, as there’s nothing more I like than a good talking animal book. Not to sound overly pessimistic, but, statistically speaking, there’s a good chance that if I met you, I wouldn’t like you, or at least I wouldn’t like you as much as I like my cat. If Hell is, as they say, other people, then certainly Heaven is a place where all the animals can talk, as the 8 books below should ably illustrate:
Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White)
Wilbur may be “some pig,” but considering how the deck has been stacked against her (specifically, she is a spider, and spiders…shudder), the real MVP of E.B. White’s children’s classic is undeniably Charlotte, whose calming presence and quick thinking saves Wilbur from a horrible fate. She even manages to make us tear up at her passing, and rejoice when hundreds of her babies hatch and float away on the breeze. Which, I guarantee you, if I encounter floating spider babies anywhere outside of this book, I will not be smiling.
Fiver (Watership Down, by Richard Adams)
Here’s to the crazy ones. Though he’s not a leader like Hazel or a fighter like Bigwig, it is nervous, half-mad Fiver who foresees coming death for his colony in Adams classic novel, which manages to be both about talking rabbits and totally badass. Timid and undersized but smarter than everyone else, Fiver proves time and time again that he’s a good bunny to know, and his increasing inability to control his visions gives his character arc a somber, melancholy note, in keeping with the novel as a whole.
Assorted Cats (Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami)
I’ve read every one of Murakami’s novels, so you can trust my experience when I tell you that I have absolutely no idea what is going on in Kafka on the Shore, which is ostensibly about a young boy who might or might not have killed someone and also might or might not have made out with his mom. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite reading experiences, and I think a lot of that has to do with the side story about a lovable old guy named Nakata who can commune with cats. Murakami often writes about felines, and he gets their personalities just right. Aloof, preoccupied, usually napping, and endlessly, endearingly obtuse.
Behemoth (The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov)
Speaking of felines, it’s pretty hard to compete with Behemoth, a massive, demonic black cat who arrives in 1930s Moscow on the coattails of none other than Satan himself, looking to stir up trouble. Behemoth loves guns, vodka, and chess, in that order, but most of all, he loves a perfectly timed sarcastic remark. If you substitute “food, naps, and naps,” that probably pretty much describes my cat, too.
Pantalaimon (The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman)
In Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, people’s souls manifest outside of their bodies as animals known as dæmons. The souls of children, who are themselves ever-changing, have not settled on one particular form and can alter their size and shape at will. Pantalaimon is dæmon to Lyra, the heroine of the series, and he’s everything to her: best friend, constant companion, and cautious counterpoint to her impulsive tendencies. Various plot machinations keep him off the page in the second and third books, and his absence is keenly felt.
Oy (Dark Tower novels, by Stephen King)
So technically the doglike billybumbler, sort of a hyper-intelligent cross between a West Highland Terrier and a parrot, only exists in the alternate dimension in which King’s magnum opus is set. And technically Oy doesn’t talk so much as bark him own name, though he manages to communicate quite a lot with that single syllable. But I challenge you to find a more heroic, more selfless kind-of-talking animal anywhere in fiction. In fact, the success or failure of Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower rests on Oy’s furry shoulders! Oy, indeed.
Manchee (The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness)
As dogs go, they don’t get more loyal or lovable than Manchee, the stalwart companion of the main character in the Chaos Walking trilogy, Ness’s dark-as-pitch YA dystopia series set on an alien world in which people can read the thoughts of animals. Most of Manchee’s thoughts proceed as follows: “Need a poo, Todd. Poo. Poo, Todd.” He’s the one bright spot in what is perhaps one of the top ten most depressing, enthralling books I have ever read.
Mr. Fox (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl)
Because he’s fantastic, obviously.
What beloved talking animals are we forgetting?