The Last Animal by Abby Geni

The Last Animal is a collection of thematically linked short
stories - a debut collection by a young and promising Chicago writer. In
it, the relationship between humanity and the natural world come
together in elegant prose.

In the first story, "Terror
Birds," Lory Geni uses an ostrich farm as the background for the human
drama that slowly unfolds. The story is told in first person narration
by Jack, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, Sandy. The story is
simple: Jack has seen his father making love to a young woman who tends
the ostriches - a woman he once adored. He also knows this woman phones his father when his mother is out and that they argue. The child does not understand what he is witnesses, yet he understands its destructive nature. Similarly, the
wild ostrich, a dangerous, unpredictable animal capable of killing a
human if aroused, serves as a metaphor for unleashed passions. As Jack
remarks: "I loved the ostriches - and all the other monsters - for what they
were: sheer brute force, untempered by either conscience or
consciousness." (p. 27) Although "Terror Birds" deals with themes of
adultery and deception, it has no real villains. Geni is merely depicting the
emotional damage wrought when love dwindles and restraint fails.

story, "Captivity," explores a daughter's relationship with her mother
as she grieves the disappearance of her brother.  Lucy clings to hope
that he is alive; her mother believes him to be dead and wishes for
closure. Both women are held captive by the confusion their grief
causes. "I missed my mother more," Lucy confesses, "than when we were on
opposite ends of the same city...It broke my heart that two such
interesting women found silence easier than speech, standing side by
side in the kitchen as she grated cheese into the pasta and I chopped
the vegetables, or watching television with our heads cocked at the same
angle." (p. 73)

Lucy works at the aquarium (presumably
Shedd Aquarium) and soon takes refuge there.  She hides at closing time
and begins to roam the empty rooms at night. One of her daytime tasks is
to dive into the octopus tank and feed the octopuses before live
audiences. Now she seeks solace with the octopus, Falco. Geni's
passages of the museum at night are among the finest in the book. The
sense of loneliness the animal might be experiencing is juxtaposed with
Lucy's ability to empathize with it.

employs humor as well as sadness. When an administrator remarks that
Falco is becoming aggressive, that he almost bit someone, Lucy defends

They bite their prey, she says. I've never been bitten. I don't know of any divers who've been bitten.
They're poisonous, the manager remarks.
I had the feeling she'd just learned this. She had degrees in marine
biology, and I had field experience, so friendship was impossible
between us. This discrepancy was common among the members of the
administration and staff at the aquarium. The managers grouped together
at lunch, no doubt grumbling about our stubbornness and absence of hard
data, while we, the aquarists and underlings, bonded after hours at the
dolphin pool to complain about our bosses' lack of common sense.
(p. 88)

All ten stories capture the experiences of growing up, of loving people and of losing
them. Each story substantiates how redemption is often found in
nature - in caring for animals (domestic or wild) or in creating and
tending a  garden. Ultimately, our relationship to the natural world defines our essential humanity.

The Last Animal is packed with emotionally charged and evocative stories. You need not be an animal lover to be captivated by them.

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