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Review: Gentle and Fierce, Vanessa Berry, Giramondo.

Many of us who live in cities, and even those of us in country towns, can be distanced from the animal world, but Vanessa Berry, in her book Gentle and Fierce, finds ways of connecting through domestic and suburban encounters and through depictions of animals in our material culture.

In her book Mirror Sydney she looks at the overlooked – the quirky and the neglected places of suburbia. Here in her new book she writes about animals and writers, animals in unexpected places, animals in memories and dreams and animals as images. Many of the pieces in the book pivot on contrasts, as indicated by her book title – how we encounter the wild in a human-controlled setting, how the past is injected into the present, how we can find the world in a room. The book aligns with the way in a global pandemic we have been forced to focus on the local and simple.

The book fills in more of her personality; the pieces add up to a biography of sorts. We learn about her childhood, about feeling a misfit at school, about dark teen years, her travels, her relationships with family and friends. The title refers to sides of her personality, which emerge in the style and flair of her writing. She describes herself as shy, but she writes strongly (as might be expected of someone who teaches creative writing).

The title refers to animals too, of course: how wallabies on the Isle of Man have established themselves in the countryside after escaping a zoo, how animals survive in the city despite the pressures. She wonders how, in a further example of contrast or paradox, humanity’s favourite animals are often the most threatened by human activities.

There are pieces on Robert Smith from 1980s band The Cure dressed up as a spider, and her hunt for a stuffed bear in a university museum, a memory from childhood. Many of her encounters are with kitsch representations of animals such as porcelain or glass figurines and pandas on tissue boxes and t-shirts. Just as Mirror Sydney is about parts of the city that aren’t grand tourist magnets, she writes about animals without heading into the wild. As she writes about these in her cluttered workspace, she shows how the ephemera of urban life can connect us to the wider world. Rather than be dismissive of such second-hand relationships to animals, she finds positives. These relationships can foster sympathy for our animal companions and wild animals that need protection. She remembers how watching Lassie on TV mediated her relationship with her own dog. Meditating on her book title, she notes how care, whether it be of humans or animals, requires both a quiet, soft touch and force, resolve. And she notes how gentleness is itself a kind of strength.

Gentle and Fierce is available now in bookstores.

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big.