Any Small Thing Can Save You: A Bestiary

by Christina Adam

Published by BlueHen Books

226 pages, 2001

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The Highest Order

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


My dictionary defines a bestiary as "a medieval treatise on animals giving a symbolic moral and religious interpretation of their traits and habits." Though this small collection of gentle, probing tales by award-winning writer Christina Adam does not quite fit the literal definition of a bestiary, it does revolve around animals: one for each letter of the alphabet, in fact. But the traits and habits explored here are definitely very human.

For the most part, Adam's creatures live as God made them; they simply are. Existing parallel to them are her human subjects, their lives so much more messy, complex and conflicted. Yet somehow, in story after story, human and animal come to coexist in a touchingly imperfect state of grace.

It's no small feat to create 26 different sets of characters, one after the other. The effect is similar to changing a theatrical set rapidly and seemingly effortlessly between scenes. In the opening story, "Asp," Helena discovers that a snake has invaded the kitchen cupboard of her home on a New Mexico ranch. Though the story is supposedly about the snake's slightly creepy presence where it shouldn't be, there is so much more going on here, such as the inner workings of a marriage:

She shouted, "Stan!" and he glanced up. "What?" he said, with such an edge of irritation in his voice, she stopped still. She had wanted him to come back with her to see the snake, how green and perfect it was and how unexpected, because it was round and of a substance different from the things that belonged inside a house. But his tone knocked the wind out of her. She said, 'There's a snake in the kitchen."

Helena wants only to marvel at the creature. Stan has an equally compelling need to capture it in a box, revealing worlds to us about their personalities and the uneasy, but ultimately loving way they live together.

Most of these stories have a rural or ranch setting and an eye for beauty that often results in delicately watercolored prose: "I look to the fallow field behind me just as a blanket of wild ducks takes flight. The same dark color as the earth, they fill the horizon with tiny x's, as if great handfuls of cloves have been tossed to the sky."

Though Adam's bestiary includes such diverse creatures as the nightcrawler, yellow jacket, impala and elephant, birds figure large in her psychic landscape. In the poignant "Dove," a middle-aged woman alone on a ranch tries in vain to protect a flock of silvery doves from overzealous hunters. The symbolism of a bird of peace savagely hunted down by callous humans is never overworked:

A wary, impatient look on his face, the man nearest the truck lowered the barrels of his shotgun. At his feet, the sandy road was littered with dead birds thrown down at any angle, their wings broken in such sad and wasteful parodies of flight, I wanted to scream at him, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

A dark thread of grief and loss runs through Any Small Thing, as couples become estranged or separated and loved ones die or drift away. In "Hen," an elderly couple carefully break the news to their middle-aged daughter that she was adopted. Emotionally fractured by the revelation, Gene seeks intimate solace in her married cousin Mack:

She let Mack hold her, as she never would have in all the years they had been friends. She lifted her face and kissed him on the mouth.

Very gently, Mack took her shoulders and pushed her away.

This is not a perfect collection. Some entries feel like mere sketches, as if inserted to round out Adam's "abecedarium." Others have been retitled to fit the format and a few, such as "Siren and X the Unknown Quantity," have little or no connection to animals at all.

But the fact that the device sometimes feels a bit forced takes nothing away from the stronger, more developed stories. As with poetry, this form demands real economy of expression and Adam has mastered it. We know a lot about a man whose "children come from three different marriages, and the girlfriends get thinner every year." The uneasy balance between couples is also neatly summed up. When a woman's dog kills several fowl on a farm, her husband can't let go of his anger:

I have forgotten the day the birds were killed. The world reknit at the seams and went on. A higher order of animal, my husband won't ever forget. Mated for life, and unable to grieve, he wants someone to blame.

It is this higher order of animal that Adam excels at portraying, with great emotional honesty, touches of humor and a compassion that makes even their worst flaws forgivable. | December 2001


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.