In his journalism, Sam Leith comes across as a level-headed type. But if there is a more eccentric book on the market than this sprawling, strangely fascinating compendium, I’ll eat my hamster – and Freddie Starr’s with it.
Part essay, part biography, part cookbook, Dead Pets is a monument to humanity’s enduring love for domestic animals. Leith feels the bond keenly, but nevertheless has a fine eye for the absurdities in which it finds expression.
The opening pages are devoted to the young Sam’s hamster, Silky, whose spectacularly unfortunate demise – squashed beneath his owner’s mattress – aspires to the status of urban myth. The closest thing to a narrative thread is supplied by the story of Leith’s most recent companion, a cat called Henry; but it is the many detours along the way that are the real joy of this book.
These include forays to the lunatic fringe of pet-loving, such as a San Francisco cemetery for the animals of army personnel, and candle-lit vigils organised via the Internet for furry creatures which have crossed ‘the Rainbow Bridge’. The dauntless Leith even attends a course in taxidermy and brings home a stuffed jay.
There are recipes for dog soup (Korean) and stuffed dormouse (Roman), as well as suggestions for other interesting things to do with a dead pet – such as having its ashes turned into a diamond. A section on pet poetry features odes by Kipling and Byron, and sprinkled throughout the margins are notes on everything from cat language to Blue Peter.
Leith’s cheerfully sardonic tone is at its most effective in the passages on famous animals. We meet Wessex, the terrier who melted Thomas Hardy’s miserly heart, and Blondi the Alsatian, killed by her doting master Adolf Hitler to test his own suicide pills (‘She was born a dog but died a guinea-pig’).
Tongue-in-cheek though it is, Dead Pets raises some absorbing questions. The matter of whether animals have souls – on which ministers of different religions are asked to pronounce – is freighted with implications for those seeking to define man’s place in the universe. Similarly, what does a relationship with an inarticulate creature tell us about the nature of love? Mourning an animal may seem ridiculous, yet one owner in ten seeks medical help to cope with their bereavement.
Imaginatively designed and highly entertaining, this book would make an excellent Christmas present. Just be very, very careful who you give it to.