A short story I recently read

Clementine, Carmelita, Dog by David Means

Read it here in about 20 minutes (if you aren’t subscribed to Granta, you can still read about half of the story).

Thinking about narrative perspective…

I absolutely love this short story, partly because it’s told from the third-person limited point of view of a sausage dog, and partly because it’s told in a clever way.

Crucially, because our narrator is not the dog itself, the animal’s thoughts, behaviour, and experience of the world are translated for human readers, for example, ‘She knew it was a gun but she didn’t have a name for it – it was an object that had frightened her’, and ‘she wasn’t bound by the logic of causality’.

There’s a lot of detail about the scents and sounds our protagonist experiences, with wonderful verb choices – ‘she tweezed it apart to find his scent’, and ‘A skunk was spreading like ink’; the creation of dog-apt imagery – ‘smells that formed a vague pattern of hikers in the past’, and ‘the smell of a bear in a cloak of limestone dust from the quarry’; and an illustration of the way sound and scent compels her – ‘Norman had jiggled the leash over her head, a delightful sound’, and ‘overwhelmed by the scent ahead’. I can imagine Means getting down on all fours to ask ‘What if?’, getting inside the character’s head, trying to feel what this dog must feel.

The non-chronological order builds up the suspense and empathy for this little sausage dog. At first, we think she’s run off and got lost, then, we’re worried about the ‘oil and saltpeter thing that made a frightening sound’, then, we’re relieved that a nice man finds her and takes her home. The second mention of the gun reminds us to be worried.

Using scent as a link to memory allows Means to add flashbacks or exposition, at appropriate times, so we learn about Claire, and from the details the dog recalls but doesn’t fully understand, we can deduce what happened when ‘she disappeared completely’. Also, we can know she’ll be happy in her new home, because the new woman smells like Claire.

Although the story is about a dog and its adventures, it’s also about the people in her life, their private grief, and the joy the dog brings to them. The ending is bittersweet – it’s a relief she’s back at home, and that Norman decided not to use his gun, but it’s sad for Steve and Luisa. Although, I think perhaps the couple no longer needs her, at least, not as much as Norman does.

Can you think of any short stories with non-human protagonists?

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