Our Hen House reviewer, Piper Hoffman, is back with a review of a new novel, Unsaid.
Animals talk with us. A purr, a tail wag, and a lick on the nose speak as clearly as any words. We take our communication with animals so much for granted that we don’t always realize when it is happening. But we can’t take the resulting intimacy and affection for granted, especially when a beloved companion animal dies.
Unsaid (Center Street/Hachette Book Group, 2011), a new novel by attorney and animal advocate Neil Abramson, plumbs the depths of relationships between human and non-human animals, and does so much more: it challenges the legal treatment of non-human animals as human property; explores the ethical questions raised by vivisection and by euthanizing companion animals; illustrates the similarities between humans and other animals; and draws tears over and over. Have tissues handy.
Helena, a veterinarian who has just died, narrates Unsaid, chronicling the reactions to her death of her grieving husband and her houseful of rescued animals. Her husband David, a corporate lawyer not particularly close with Helena’s menagerie, works through his grief by building relationships with her animals and carrying on her work protecting chimpanzees from torturous vivisection.
If the love that Abramson’s human and non-human characters have for each other is the heart of this novel, its mind is an exploration and critique of the consequences of animals’ status as property under the law. For the most part the law does not consider their wellbeing and does not allow lawsuits intended to protect them from suffering. Like a chair or a car, the relevant legal question regarding non-human animals is which human owns them, not how that human treats them.
The real-life results of that body of law is the profound suffering of an unthinkable number of animals. Unsaid focuses on animals used in research, many of whom live their entire lives locked in small cages, suffer repeated invasive and unnecessary surgeries, are deliberately sickened with diseases including HIV and cancer, and get no treatment for pain. The book also touches on the cruelty some people inflict on their companion animals and the prolonged terror, pain, and deaths of animals hit by drivers who blithely continue on their way.
Though upsetting, this book is also refreshing. Rarely does a novel acknowledge our bonds with and savage treatment of the billions of nonhuman animals under our control, let alone make that subject its unifying theme. Unsaid is not without faults: the dialogue is sometimes stilted, and some lengthy expositions of animals’ plight read more like political advocacy than like a novel. But these weaknesses are easily outweighed by the number of people who will learn about the need for legal rights for animals precisely because the information is presented in the popular format of a novel and not the niche medium of a screed. Abramson’s novel is both a good read and an eye-opener.