The reviewer is the author of "The Book of the Dun Cow," and, most recently, "The Bible, Its Story for Children."
"Pork," by Cris Freddi, is a very good book.
It takes nature as its setting, acknowledges the ineluctable natural law as the rule for its plotting, presents all manner of animals both as characters in the setting and (here is the fine conflict) as participants and victims of the law. By the law they are allowed to feed, and so to live. By the same law they will be food, and so must die.
So careful is Freddi's eye in surveying his northern swatch of nature; so particular his words in describing its forest, soils, mountains, streams, river, ocean coastline, all conditions of weather and seasons, all sensate responses to growth, color, odors and decay; so content his mood with the laws that cause both life and death that I am reminded of a book neither fiction nor fantasy: Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac." Like Leopold, Freddi did not make up the world of his book. Leopold was a passionate student of nature, earnest to understand it as it is and in no way to change it, but rather to find man's rightful place within it. His book did not control or explain nature, but reflected it. Likewise, Freddi's book assumes that nature is almost all that there is, that it cannot usually be abrogated, and that man must finally admit his place within and not above the natural order of things.
At this level, "Pork" is not fantasy. It is deadly realistic.
What gives the fantastical twist to it -- in no way compromising its realism -- is that the animal-characters have human characteristics. They talk. They more than react to their condition (which alone would be instinct): They are conscious of their reactions, and being conscious, they also rejoice in survival and must always contemplate their deaths.
Please don't think, by these last statements, that "Pork" is peopled with philosophers, or that the characters are thematic generalizations. Half the skill and most of the entertainment of this book is that its characters are sharply drawn personalities. There's Vim, a go-lucky little vole whose moments apart from a nagging wife are cherished as much as beer in a bar; Redge, an elderly bat with a cunning mind and the grace to grieve when his strategies kill the old friend who killed his wife; Ug, a proud, powerful and grossly self-centered toad who suffers the pain of age in his shoulder. There's a badger concerned that he not be blamed for crimes not his; a stoat of frightful, dumb brutality; a wren-mother of the most selfless, desperate and sacrificial love; and Pork, who begins the book, a hedgehog awakened too early from his winter's sleep, who suffers the wet weather, survives a serious attempt upon his life, then dies under the wheels of an automobile, all in the same night, all in the first part of the book that bears his name.
Pork, then, is not the protagonist of the book. No character named above is. Each appears in his own story, some reappear briefly, but none effects a unity by his presence. Nevertheless, the book is not a collection of separate stories. It has a hard thematic unity that becomes more complicated the further we go into it. If there is a protagonist, it is all the characters together. If there is an antagonist, it is that mandated by the laws of nature, that which makes so shocking an entrance in the very first sequence: It is death.
Pork dies straightaway. That is a brazen, astonishing jolt for the reader. So what is there to carry on thereafter? Why, dying itself, in various forms, by various means, with various agents acting for various motives. But always it is the dying -- again and again until it emerges as a fixed ordinance.
The stoat may kill a crow to eat; but the same terrible stoat will kill a mole, his mole-daughter and her children for no other reason than hatred, and then not eat them. Yet this same mighty stoat, despite his strength, is not himself above the law. He is killed, crossing a river, by a pike that is also killed in the encounter. In fact, the only creature to survive this sequence is the nearly defenseless Vim the vole, and he by accident. The bat kills next, for vengeance. Thus, characters are not only victims of the law, but its agents as well. Then, almost as a reminder that the law is deeper than all, the most powerful creature in the book, one legendary for complete superiority, the "Golden Emperor," the Eagle, dies.
That this book is not oppressively morbid is its triumph. The animals' lives do not survive the law; yet again and again their spirits ascend above it. Squirrels, the second uglier than the first, love one another. An old hare takes profound (and infectious) satisfaction in a victory over two very shrewd dogs. Life may be tenuous. But at such moments "Life was good."
The wren, whose children all were supplanted by a cuckoo's offspring and who served that selfish outsized brat until its death, meets her husband again at the end of her exhausting sequence. "You can have other sons," he says, touching her with such gentleness that she smiles. "Small sons," she says. He, in his turn, smiles and agrees: "We'll make them as small as you like."
Such humor, such tiny, sharply etched gestures of caring, of hope, of sweet premeditation, assure the reader that, though death may rule at its parameters, life after all is a holy opportunity, and each being has some say in how it might be lived.