We meet Ivory Frame, the protagonist of Sopinka’s tale when she is aged ninety-two but still receiving surprises from life. And what a life it’s been. Being at first passionate about painting she has devoted the greater part of her life to recording the languages of animals…before they all become extinct.
She describes herself as an acoustic biologist, a profession she arrived at after many years of study in the sciences. Here is her description of her role.
I am obsessed with language obsolescence. Threatened languages have a right to be protected. The Conservatory for Extinct Animals is affiliated with the university in Oslo and works in a number of areas, including habitat restoration, educating citizen scientists toward land management, analysing data for shaping future conservation. And then there is my strange branch of bioacoustics and the dictionary.p 190
But Ivory Frame has travelled a long way to find her true vocation. Born of wealthy parents in the north of England, she was a rebellious girl who was expelled from her convent boarding school and who escaped to Paris to paint and learn about art. She finds the Surrealists and explores life in Paris with her close friend Tacita which opens her to a wildness and freedom within herself.
I walk into the dark pink air. Through the cemetery, past Baudelaire and de Maupassant, along the dusty gravel path that slips through the bright green centre of the Jardin du Luxembourg.p 43
She mixes with artists at the Brasserie Lipp, she hears Satie playing, she collapse(s) with drink and laughter, and it is here she meets,
A man, beautiful and filthy, like a fallen angel.p 44
She falls madly in love with Lev, a married Russian artist, she paints, she waits for Lev to come to her and then depart. She is possessed by the intensity of the relationship. But then the war comes and they have to part.
But this romantic period of Ivory’s life has its basis in the reality of another life, that of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Heidi Sopinka was one of the last people to interview Carrington before she died. Like Ivory Frame, Carrington was born into a wealthy family and went to London to study after being expelled from a number of convent schools. Her great love was the artist Max Ernst and they went to Paris to be together. When he was interned in 1944 she suffered a breakdown.
She later settled in Mexico City and remained there, continuing to paint for the next seventy years. Sopinka interviewed her in 2009 and she died in 2011.
Ivory Frame’s life resembled Carrington’s only up until her break from Lev (Ernst). She then searched for a new way of honouring life and devoted her next seventy years to recording the sounds made by animals.
With humans there is a speaker and a listener. The speaker informs the listener. With animals, it is often just a call in the dark p 33
I find one of my field recordings…and press play. Howl and howl in that white silence, a high world of grey skies, hunched and shivering in the wind. Jaws clashing and paws creaking in the snow, whimpering, barking, freezing in the forest as the stars and the moon begin to brighten the sky. p 33
The Dictionary of Animal Languages is a first novel and a hugely ambitious book. It has many levels of discourse, some say it lacks humour, takes itself too seriously, but I found it absorbing and wonderfully strange.