Eric Douglas and Heather Harris during
The 'Living Unicorn' that was exhibited across America in 1985 © WireImage

More substantial than social media but easier on the modern attention span than a monograph, the essay form is now having something of a moment. In innovative hands, such as those of Claudia Rankine or Joanna Walsh, the essay can be more than simply a subjective non-fiction disquisition, and a suite of them can add up to far more than the sum of its parts. This is the case with Elena Passarello’s playful, shrewd and illuminating collection Animals Strike Curious Poses.

The 17 essays here, which vary enormously in length and style, take as their subject the complex and sometimes ineffable relationship between animals and human culture. Each is centred on an individual creature, and they span a roughly chronological timescale, from the last breaths of Yuka the baby mammoth 39,000 years ago to Cecil the lion, shot in 2015 by an American dentist and trophy hunter to international outrage. We meet Jeoffry the cat, famous subject of Christopher Smart’s 18th-century religious poem “Jubilate Agno”; Arabella, the spider who learnt to spin webs in zero-gravity aboard Skylab in 1973; and Koko the gorilla, 46 now and thought to have a hand-sign vocabulary of more than 1,000 terms.

“Vogel Staar”, concerning Mozart’s pet starling who riffed on a phrase from his Piano Concerto No.17, has already attracted a great deal of praise, having been published online. It’s eclipsed here by the devastating “Jumbo II”, with its brilliantly meshing twin timelines of elephants and electricity in America, and by “Four Horsemen”, which starts at a walk with Clever Hans, a mathematical prodigy in Berlin, trots smartly on to Mister Ed the Talking Horse, hits a canter with an extraordinary second-person section about Eastern Express, aka Buck, who threw the actor Christopher Reeve, paralysing him, and gallops to a conclusion with Oreo, a carriage horse who bolted through the streets of New York in 2012. These are “horse-men” because of the relationship each had with humans. Clever Hans couldn’t count, but learnt to read his questioners’ body language, Ed would lip-wiggle in “reply” to his human co-star even when nobody was looking, and racehorses such as Eastern Express time their jumps by reading the movements of their riders: “You’ll discard him if you hinge forward into your jumping stance too early . . . it’s a blackout at Mission Control, a trapeze man tossing his partner before she sees the bar.”

An actress as well as a writer, Passarello has published a previous collection of essays about voice and performance. In “Lancelot”, a first-person piece about the “Living Unicorn” (actually a goat) exhibited across America in 1985, she alludes to her reasons for turning her attention to animals, but thankfully avoids the irritating cliché of over-justifying the project with laboured reference to her own “story”. Passarello’s cultural perceptiveness and skill as an essayist, breathtaking at times, are justification enough.

Passarello is at her best when subtly dissecting modern cultural mores and attitudes to animals rather than working to recreate the thought-worlds of the past. In consequence, the second half is where the real treasure lies, and it’s hard not to wonder if the collection would have benefited from one of the really exceptional later pieces — “Four Horsemen”, perhaps, or “Arabella” — being placed earlier. As it is, the opening essay, “Yuka”, slightly misses its mark, Passarello’s preference for rhythmic sentences over clarity (“There was no ocean to stop her and barely any trees, just the hardscrabble forbs she yanked from the permafrost with that custom-made fist in her trunk”) and occasional unwillingness to provide detail impairing the essay’s power. Despite this, “Yuka” is redeemed by its insights: “uncovering a mammoth in a frozen cave does something to a neocortex. Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.”

These essays dance along the margins of what is humanly possible when it comes to understanding other forms of life. Our relationship with animals takes in whimsy and monstering; selfless love and vile cruelty; anthropomorphism, projection and pragmatic, profitable utility. It describes far better our own nature than it illuminates theirs. Animals may seem to strike curious poses when seen through human eyes and processed by human minds; but as Passarello nimbly demonstrates, the curiousness is entirely our own.

Animals Strike Curious Poses, by Elena Passarello, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99/Sarabande Books, RRP$19.95, 256 pages

Melissa Harrison is the author of ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather’ (Faber)

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Photograph: WireImage

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