We all know that there are literal, literary exceptions to the “Don’t judge a book by its cover” adage. The Last Animal, Abby Geni’s collection of award-winning short stories, is one such case: as darkly entrancing as the watercolor octopus on its jacket.
Geni’s overall collection plays expertly with perspective and with each story featuring a character in a different time of life, with different capacities for knowledge, for love, and for understanding the world around them. Geni explores each distinct protagonist’s struggle with loss: whether in the moment, long or immediately after the event, or in anticipation of estrangement, of death, of unexpected disappearance. A solitary man shirks his medical appointments for his terminal cancer, instead reconstructing the Wright brothers’ original airplane in a wintry shed; a cephalopod researcher and her mother are tormented by mysterious postcards from the brother who disappeared years ago. A grieving entomologist prowls and sleeps in the offices of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History nightly; the oldest girls’ bunk at a Zionist summer camp tries to solve the mystery of their beloved counselor’s abrupt disappearance; a mother describes the world as seen through the disabled son she carried and birthed for her and her partner.
These unique stories are threaded together by their engagement with nature and natural forces — animals, plants, illness, environment — and by a common narrative voice, applying a consistent, poignant quietude to the ordinary and exceptional tragedies, pains, and numbness of the human world.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.