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Narrative of a Beast’s Life

I really should write more reviews. I read a lot, and have opinions about everything, and I have a lot of praise to bestow. Time, time is the issue. I’ll eventually getting around to posting some comments about the Nebula nominees I voted for, anyway. But as for now:

Just today I finished listening to the Podcastle audio version of ‘s splendid story, Narrative of a Beast’s Life. I hadn’t read this tale when it originally came out in RoF, but I do a great deal of my "reading" by podcast these days, mostly during my morning and evening commutes.

I’m a sucker for deftly handled voicing, and this story delivers. Perhaps I’m more attuned in this particular case than most readers, because I spent most of senior year in college poring through late 19th and early 20th century memiors, but Cat nails the 19th-century memoirist’s voice perfectly, right down to the collection of fragmentary topic headings at the beginning of each chapter. It’s a voice that captures you completely (although I should probably credit some of this to Paul Jenkins’s compelling reading). I enthusiastically recommend it.

The only thing that gnaws at me about it, and it’s subtle, is a matter of word choice. Although this story is patently about slavery, I think I wish Cat hadn’t chosen to use the actual word "slave." The bigger theme, in which we are faced with the interplay between our attitudes about domestic animals, our imagined relationship with magical creatures, and the way masters treat slaves, would be better served (I think) if the term was never used, but merely implied by what happens to the characters. It seems to me that, by calling them slaves at the outset, Cat immediately brings in the entire catalogue of associations and history before we see what the conditions under which the beasts live are actually like. Thus, for example, when we see the way the owner treats her beasts, we may be horrified, but we’re not at all surprised, because we know slave history and were expecting it. If the word "beasts" had been used exclusively, then each new event that called up the memory of slavery would be a minor shock, and the reader would (I think) experience a progressively sinking sensation: Oh, this is like…and, oh, this is also like… and so forth. To the extent the story succeeds based on its ability to make the reader confront her own feelings and asumptions, this might be a more successful strategy.

But these are deep waters, and Cat is a much more experienced writer than I — and anway, it’s a minor point. If you haven’t already read or heard this story, do so. It’s exquisite.

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kenschneyer

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