Cows are probably some of the least thought-about animals in Western society. They don’t have the domesticated charm of cats and dogs, they aren’t the noble steeds that horses are, and there possess no exotic allure to entice people to view them the way they do animals in zoos. Cows appear to be ignored and forgotten, taken-for-granted beasts that exist only in a sort of slavery, forced to provide humans with milk and food. Cows play such an important role in our society, though, it’s a wonder we don’t think about them more.
This will change for those who read Etre the Cow, a novel by jack-of-all-trades author Sean Kenniff. The struggle of these beasts is brought to light in this short novel that is to the point but entertaining. The novel encompasses some very serious themes—growing up, freedom, and death—all in the short span of pages between its covers. The fact that it does so speaks to Kenniff’s writing ability. This is his first novel and should he write another, it would be interesting to see if his talent would hold in a much longer story.
While the story’s premise may sound like there is little to be had in way of originality, it surprisingly dodges the formulaic. The events don’t always go where one expects; the story never goes stale, and Kenniff does a good job of invention. The main character, Être the bull, seems more and more human as the story goes on. He is a cow of above-standard intelligence which has granted him the gift (or curse) of sentience.
Many readers may glance at the summary of the story and not bother with the novel because it doesn’t sound interesting. Those readers are really missing out. Cows don’t seem like exciting creatures, and Être’s description of his fellow beasts alludes to this. They eat grass, they get rounded up by dogs, and they sleep. Cows may lead dull lives but this story is never dull, instead it portrays the valiant struggle of the main character to rise above such tedium and be more than what he is—insinuating that everyone, human or animal, can face this struggle.
Some of those animal descriptions may seem a little over the top. There is a cow mating scene that comes off as a little silly and should have been hinted at instead of described. When Être later finds himself in the slaughterhouse mistakenly, he is forced to bear witness to the events that occur there. What follows is a startlingly graphic description of the way cows are killed and their carcasses processed. This is strong enough to turn the stomach of a reader and can’t be taken lightly. Nevertheless, unnecessary descriptions aside, they are important elements of the plot and help to move the story along to its conclusion.
Animal narratives can be remarkably successful–Watership Down by Richard Adams is probably the best example–and readers will definitely enjoy this tale because of the excellent story and the loveable Être. There are different ways to interpret the narrative. It could be seen as a treatise against the brutal treatment of animals that have given so much to mankind. Animal lovers will empathize with the sad circumstances surrounding Être. It may also be read simply as a good story. Readers don’t have to be animal rights activists to appreciate the tale. This broad range appeal makes it all the better.
Kenniff remarkably portrays how the commonality of death brings not only bovines and humans together, but all living creatures. It is a reminder that people share this world with other creatures. While it may not inspire a revolution in regards to animal treatment, it will capture the imagination of readers, forcing them to think about many things, especially their own place in the world. Such a novel entertains and provides intellectual stimulation. The combination of the two makes Etre the Cow well worth reading.