Last year Gillian Anderson's debut novel A Vision of Fire was released and now it's David Duchovny's turn. Holy Cow will be released tomorrow and the results of David's labours are about as far from Gillian's as you could imagine.
Hit the jump to read our review of the book.
Holy Cow tells the story of Elsie, a cow who has lived all her life quite contentedly on a farm with a barnful of bovine friends. Elsie is well read (she's able to discuss the works of Homer), very knowledgeable about pop culture, and funny. Life is good for Elsie until she looks through the window of the farmhouse and sees part of a documentary on industrial meat farms. What she sees causes her entire worldview to come crashing down and soon she is making plans to escape to India where she believes she will be worshipped like a goddess. She teams up with Shalom, a pig who has recently converted to Judaism and also wants to escape to less pork-friendly climates, and Tom, a turkey who is starving himself to avoid ending up on someone's plate come Thanksgiving. As I think is clear from the description, this is a very strange book indeed.
I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into when I started reading Holy Cow. If I'm being entirely honest, I wasn't really expecting to like it and certainly not as much as I did. The character concepts made me wary but they ended up being very likeable, especially Elsie who is (rather worryingly) one of the more rounded female characters I have met in recent years. Her emotions after discovering the truth about the meat farm are believable, and honest. You experience them with her as her shock gives way to depression and anger, followed eventually by motivation to change her life. At times she could seem changeable, upbeat and jokey in one chapter then angry and upset the next, but I challenge you to show me any person whose character can be defined by a single mood. Shalom and Tom are introduced much later in the book and are therefore much less developed than Elsie. That being said they are both interesting characters with their own unique plots and contributions to make.
David's dietary choices (he's a former vegetarian and currently a pescatarian) are fairly obvious from the content, but I never felt that I was being preached at to stop eating meat. Elsie's horror at discovering the meat farm comes less from the discovery that humans eat animals like her (at one point she considers that all animals have a place in the food chain and she wouldn't begrudge a wolf trying to eat her because that is the way of nature), but from the conditions that they are kept and slaughtered in. The description of what happens to the chickens she sees in tiny cages is horrifying, but only because we know that it is true. Rather than preaching a message of not eating meat at all, the moral I took away is to consider in more detail just what happened to the animal before it reached my kitchen, and if it could have lived a happier life. Sadly, it almost certainly could have. Whether or not you choose to take that message away with you and change the way you consume meat is not a subject that is touched upon.
The whole book is told in the first person, in a somewhat train-of-thought style directed to the reader. Elsie speaks to you as you read, occasionally relaying notes from her editor, and as such you are drawn into her life and discoveries in a much more personal way which of course makes them all the more horrifying. I suppose my biggest complaint is that the second part of the book, when Elsie and her friends set off for fresh fields (and deserts), feels quite rushed. There's a lot packed into this second half unlike the relaxed pace of the first, and a few times I felt that I'd quite like a bit more detail to be included. That being said it's also refreshing to be able to whiz through a book without needing to spend weeks ploughing through it. I positively raced through Holy Cow, finishing it in under 12 hours which included sleeping and getting a child to school. I also laughed out loud whilst reading too, something that is a definite rarity for me. The book has drawn comparisons to George Orwell's Animal Farm in many reviews, and while I can see why (talking animals on a farm with a moral message), to me, it's closer to a grown up version of the Aardman Animation movie Chicken Run. A lot of fun, occasionally bonkers, but with a message hidden beneath the surface for those who care to look closer.