Over the course of Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, several characters ask Ivory Frame what her project of recording bird and animal calls is for. She struggles to answer every time. No one seems to understand that she’s trying to save these sounds in case the animals go extinct. This is reason enough for her, but everyone else thinks is a waste of time, a fool’s errand, an elaborate way of coping with the tragedies of her past, or some combination of all of the above. The more we learn about Ivory, the more I started to agree that her project is some combination of the aforementioned and also one of the most elaborate works of art and science ever attempted.
Ivory is 92-years-old when we meet in a remote cabin in Canada. Her only companion is Skeet, a fellow biologist. Skeet knows not to press Ivory—unlike the journalists and colleagues who occasionally ask—about her past. Anything before 1950 or so is off limits. But things have changed. A pair of letters (one to each of them) have Skeet worried and send Ivory down memory lane.
Before she was a biologist, Ivory was a girl from an unhappy home who wanted to be an artist. When her parents send her to an art school in Paris after her latest expulsion from a convent school, Ivory finds herself in the middle of the city’s Surrealist renaissance. The Surrealists’s excitement and iconoclasm encourage her, but none of her works quite capture how she sees the world or expresses what she wants to say. The only thing that feels right is the passion she has for Lev Volkov, a Russian expatriate artist on the run from the Soviets. The first part of Ivory’s life was full of emotion and activity—which makes it easy to see the other decades as penance or exile.
The Dictionary of Animal Languages is a very slow burn. Tagging along with an old woman as she ruminates about her past does not make for the most gripping reading, at first. But patient readers will find, as I did, that a bit of mystery about what exactly happened is just enough bait to keep them going until they’ve gotten to know Ivory so well that the last third or so of the book is emotionally devastating in the best way. This book is a powerful and brilliantly constructed story about loss, love, and communication of all types.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.