This is a gorgeous and a curious book. A magnificent sad-looking leopard stalks across its dust-jacket and many other beasts and prey lurk in the forest of its pages. It is richly and colourfully illustrated with drawings, photographs, paintings and objects from many artists, countries and cultures. There are beasts from prehistoric wall paintings and ancient manuscripts, there are tigers, panthers, foxes, wolves, deer, bison and bunyips, and there is an Inuit drawing of a shaman and a Phoenician carving, there is also a photograph of a ‘reclining demimonde’ who is clearly a beast of a very different sort. Some of the most beautiful paintings of beasts are by J.J.Audubon, who is better known for his birds. Altogether, this is a gorgeous bedtime book for dipping into and finding creatures which might readily stalk through your dreams.
Which brings me to the ‘curious’ part. This is a curious book in the Alice-in-Wonderland sense. It’s text is full of strange and unusual poems, parables, folk-tales, brief quotations, fabulous and imaginative stories, plus extracts from the diaries of hunters and explorers, and writing by scientists and ecologists. It is an eclectic mixture of curiosities in which Graeme Gibson’ s introduction to each section of the book are, perhaps, the most curious.
Gibson writes of his own experiences with wild animals – a childhood encounter with sharks, the thrill of listening to wolves, the strange experience of being unknowingly stalked by a bear. But he also writes about animal behaviour, about the encounter between the hunter and the hunted, and about our own history as both predator and prey. His accounts do not always make comfortable reading, especially as they describe the increasing alienation of human beings from the natural world. In fact, reading this book, as I did, from cover to cover, rather than dipping into it at random, can be an increasingly depressing experience. Not only have we humans managed to by-pass natural selection and so undermine the natural process which improves the survival chances of any species, we are also increasingly cut off from any direct contact with the beasts on which we feed, and from the natural world in general. As a bedtime story, this is more likely to give you nightmares than pleasant dreams.
However, and this is a big HOWEVER, dipping into this book is a delight. And if Gibson’s underlying theme does penetrate our consciousness (and subconsciousness) and reinforce our love and understanding of beasts through the many curiosities he has collected in it, then it should be on everybody’s bedside table.
A selection of sample pages is available athttp://knopfdoubleday.com/bedsidebookofbeasts/