REVIEW: The Grass Library, by After Coetzee contributor David Brooks, formerly the editor of Australia's Southerlymagazine and the prolific author of novels, short stories, and poetry.
I ADORED THIS BOOK, a touching, searching, and also very funny report on the ad-hoc sanctuary that Brooks and his partner—a scholar of nonhuman-animal grief, T.—put together when called on to give refuge to a ram, Henry, and a wether, Jonathan. At first focused on Charlie, the dog whom Brooks and T. live with and love, the narrative opens to the goings-on in the paddock, which comes to provide sanctuary to two more sheep. The book also deftly describes encounters with rats, a snake, ducklings, and, through its reflections, gestures to the unwritten panoply of beings we live with and among.
While I most enjoyed the sensitive and surprising portraits of these beings, especially Henry—who at one point battles a neighbor ram and then, in an exhaustion born of his expenditures of "excitement, fear and desire" lets himself be led home like a dizzied athlete pulled down from a stage of victory—I appreciated its philosophical reflections. Brooks describes with admirable honesty the ethical dilemmas that rescue and sanctuary presents. He also thoughtfully considers the barriers to being-with that human thinking presents, barriers that, like fences, bring other beings close but also keep them out. Of what, Brooks asks, does knowledge consist? Are some ways of knowing more ethical than others? How can we follow other beings in their ways of knowing to discover one less anthropocentric?
Fans of After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions may also recognize Brooks's story "The Goat," here rendered as a chapter of non-fiction.
I may be predisposed to love this book because its themes—including that of the importance of intellectual and relational humility—call to my interests, but that's not why I so enjoyed The Grass Library. Brooks's narrative turns in surprising ways, grounding (pasturing) the debates and concerns of critical animal studies in beautifully rendered portraits. I see them all as I read: Henry and Jonathan, independent but sensitive, curious and by turns headstrong and collaborative; Charlie, who trembles in a kind of "dusk anxiety" and may have some opinions on Rilke; an unseen rat, who places a nibbled tomato on the same spot on the floor every night; and, lastly of the sheep, Pumpkin and Jason.
Near the end, Brooks describes the sheep, who, newly shorn of their bolts of heavy wool, reduced nearly to nakedness, look at one another "with a kind of awe." But in Pumpkin, there seems also "a kind of sadness, as if something had been taken from him that, for all he knew, he would never get back." For the reader, perhaps for Pumpkin too, the discarded wool recalls the memory of Pumpkin's mother, a victim of our mechanized predations in the form of breeding and slaughter.
At the edges of The Grass Library is a difficult knowledge, one Brooks brings to awareness at key moments. Interspecies relationships formed in refuge, formed even through domestic-animal companionship, originate in acts of violence.
And it is this knowledge that gives rise to the ethical dilemmas Brooks deftly describes, as he and T. make difficult decisions to castrate one sheep but to solve the problem of rats eating produce by growing enough for them all. In some ways, The Grass Library is the archive of this forbidden knowledge, even as it is the archive of contented and intimate knowledges—those found in the paddock, those delineated in the urine insignias of happy sheep.
Please purchase, read, and see if you aren't moved.