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Fiction Historical

The Dictionary of Animal Languages

by (author) Heidi Sopinka

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2018
Historical, Literary, War & Military
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2018
    List Price

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Shortlisted for the 2019 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
Longlisted for the 2019 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize
A novel of love, longing, and art set in interwar Paris, The Dictionary of Animal Languages will appeal to readers of All the Light We Cannot See and The Disappeared.

Ivory Frame is a renowned artist. Now in her nineties, the famously reclusive painter remains devoted to her work. She has never married, never had a family, never had a child. So when a letter arrives disclosing that she has a granddaughter living in New York, her world is turned upside down and the past is brought painfully to life.
Disowned by her bourgeois family, the young Ivory had gone to interwar Paris to study art, and quickly found her true home among the avant-garde painters and poets who crowd the city's cafes. In fellow painter Tacita, she finds the sister she never had. In the Zoological Gardens, she finds a subject for her art capable of fascinating her endlessly. And in Lev, the brooding, haunted Russian émigré painter fleeing the Revolution and destined for greatness, she finds the love that will mark her life forever.
But she loses all this, and more, when the Second World War sweeps away the life she has only just discovered. In her grief, she turns to the project she had begun in Paris, and which will consume the rest of her life: a dictionary of animal languages. Part science, part art, the dictionary strives to transcribe the wordless yearning of animals, the lonely and love-laden cries that expect no response.
By nature solitary, Ivory withdraws fully into herself as she pursues her life's work. Until the discovery of one of Lev's paintings from 1940, inscribed to Ivory and now worth a fortune, brings to light a secret from her time in Paris that even Ivory could never guess. Now in her nineties, she is forced to acknowledge afresh all she has lost, and also to find meaning and beauty in a world defined by longing.
Masterfully written, and emotionally charged, The Dictionary of Animal Languages is about love and grief and art and the realization that, like tragedy, the best things in life arrive out of the blue.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
  • Long-listed, Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize

Contributor Notes

HEIDI SOPINKA has worked as a bush cook in the Yukon, a travel writer in Southeast Asia, a helicopter pilot, a magazine editor, and is co-founder and co-designer at Horses Atelier. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, Brick, and Lit Hub. She has won a national magazine award and was The Globe and Mail's environment columnist. The Dictionary of Animal Languages, her debut novel, was chosen by AnOther magazine as "one of the six novels set to conquer 2018," the book of the month by the Tate, a semi-finalist for The Morning News Tournament of Books Best Novels from 2018, shortlisted for the Kobo Writing Prize, and longlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize.

Excerpt: The Dictionary of Animal Languages (by (author) Heidi Sopinka)

My eyes became her eyes, the eyes of someone who died young. Which makes them hard to live with. But Skeet doesn’t know this. Or Ondine. Or Valentina even. The only one left who knows is me.

Any eggs in the coop, Frame?

Yes, I tell him. But he hasn’t heard. He’s shaken out the coffee beans and ground out my voice.

The fork tines clink rhythmically against the steel bowl like the metallic call of a long-legged grassland bird I have transcribed. I am attuned to sounds. After all the animals I have recorded, read glyphic and elemental, like songs. He turns on the tap at the sink. He knows water works better than milk. It occurs to me we are a woman and a man in a stone house. The man making breakfast. It could be one of those tender moments that occur, the kind between sex and full- dressed protocol. But this isn’t that. I haven’t told him of the letter. It is a bit of a trick, this timing between it and Skeet arriving out of nowhere by the same low sun.

We eat our food slowly, in comfortable silence. My legs dangle from the too-high chair like a child’s. Skeet butters the bread in angular little lines, and says, This place is smaller than I thought.

I know, I say. It’s intensely orchestrated, three-quarter size. She must have culled everything and photographed from cunning angles. What is that? High or low, I can never remember.


He sips his coffee looking straight ahead. I am reminded of my fondness for him. How nothing between us is insincere.

You know this valley has been called the Playground of Kings, I say. The Garden of France. Which makes you think it should be those things, but all I see are these hot yellow fields of sunflowers that will soon be cut, gleaming and bristling like a big cat’s pelt. They could be cornfields in middle America. I hold up my mug, feeling the steam on my skin. This coffee doesn’t taste like anything. It has happened to food too.

He looks out the window and blinks at the sun.

I suppose it has a certain kind of beauty. He eats his toast. The beauty of death.

I’ve missed you, Skeet.

Anyway Frame, what does it matter? You’re like an animal. Not even one percent changed by geography. He pauses. How are you?

Well you and I both know that isn’t true. The leg is better, I tell him, but that is hardly an event. Aren’t you going to ask me?


About le grand projet.


He is distracted. Normally this is his first line of inquiry. His eyes downcast, on the envelope with the letterpressed insignia and the same French font as all the graveurs on the table by the front door. A letter is pulled from a postbox and everything is pulled with it. Maybe it is me who is distracted.

Skeet gets up and paces the room, his fingers following the papers taped to the walls. I forgot this about him. He cannot sit for more than a few minutes. He goes quiet for a while and then turns to face me.

The photographs are everywhere, interlocking and branching patterns, extreme density interspersed with silences. All the data, the transcriptions in fieldbooks and papers with rubber bands in shopping bags on the floor. For a moment, I see the way someone else would see it. Not Skeet, but someone normal. How barking mad it all looks. As though I might have finally and definitely lost my mind. Despite feeling off-pitch, the project reassures me. I have always known myself in it.

After a long silence, Skeet sucks in air. Fuck.

Oh my god. What?

He stops dead. Frame. What?

I don’t know how to tell you this.

What? You look so worried. This look on your face, I’ve never seen it before.

He breathes out. He’s not sure which thing to tell, there are so many.

What’s going on? Is it about the project? I say, unsure.

Well— he hesitates. Yes and no.

Thud. We both startle at the sound. The bird again. It began hurling itself at the window before I left the house yesterday morning. I switched off the light and removed the keys and discs from the windowsill, all the deceptive things, to warn it off. Thud. It hit the glass again. The sun was bright and the wisp-white clouds passed above as I walked out to the car. In the country you are always driving. The glass is hot; the driver’s seat swings wildly. I keep a breadboard wedged behind it, which allows my feet to touch the pedals and fixes the seat in position. The sky is vast and clear. There is only one road out. The fields blur, silvered by clouds that momentarily close over them. A relief from the gold sizzle that rattles the grasses dry and forces dogs to lie in shade, ribcages labouring. Everything grows from the cracks. Roses, ditches of poppies, trees bending with fruit. This time of year people come. They file into castles with conical spires. They pose in front of churches. I have no emotion for it. The beauty is general. The car radio crackles. What’s-her-name is singing, Yeah what have I got? / Nobody can take away. And it suddenly strikes me as funny that we see ourselves as immortal. What I have got somebody is about to take away. Nobody gets out of here alive. The sun flickers in like a heartbeat through the evenly spaced plane trees that parallel the road, their wide calico trunks tessellate.

For months nothing arrived from the conservatory or the university, but today, in the small metal postbox, finally, a letter. I think of countless fieldbooks full of animal sounds shaped into images, webbed maps, rough chorales, thin silver frequencies. They all funnel into this single gesture, a woman swivelling on her heel, handing me a white rectangle, eyes fixed on the next person in line. Except they don’t. I open it standing at the blue and yellow counter. Everything is bright and vibrating in the room. Pain swings and pits behind my eyes. Every little thing shoots off course, like looking up at the night sky of another hemisphere, not a single star you can name.

I drive home with the open letter on my lap, passing right by the short gravel lane to the house. It seems impossible that something that weighs almost nothing can contain such stunning facts. My breathing is panicked and sharp. The fields ripple and ride in waves from the wind. White cows all facing the same direction, lining up not as the farmers say to predict rain, but because the earth is one big magnet. The windows are down, open to birdsong and the thin layer of dust that bangs up from the cracked dirt road. These things I have seen a hundred times before I am now observing with total attention. The sky is saturated and smooth as stone, cut through with small grey wings. Cold perspiration films on my body, my clothes stuck to the leather seat. My hands are shaking. Of all the time it has taken between it and now. Facts never come soon enough. What is a fact? So much of life is lost vacant time of which you remember almost nothing. Memory is not a fact. But what is memory? Billions of infinitesimal particles collected from outerspace, Edison said.

Skeet moves his chair, the low timbre of wood dragging across the stone floor.

I first met Skeet years ago, at an airport, a kind of shack at the end of the tarmac where I was waiting for him in Whitehorse. He was tall with a good set of eyes, a bit of wildness in them. He looked serious, but had a part-grin that hid crooked teeth, the kind you don’t see anymore. The first thing he said after looking around was, You get the feeling that this is a town where people arrive on horseback. He is friendly but remote. The fieldwork is such a welcome antidote to all the hours bent over laboratory recording equipment. We spend great swaths of time sitting in cold, dry snow, waiting. Our eyes darting, anticipating the flashes of grey that will appear against the blinding white. In town we see a raven kick snow off a roof that slides and lands on a man’s head. It fits with the legend, where the Haida say they are the creator, but also the trickster. There is a white raven in legend too. Supposedly it brought the world into existence. It stole the sun and the moon and then flew through a smoke hole, turning black but also bringing light to the world.

Editorial Reviews

Shortlisted for the 2019 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize
Longlisted for the 2019 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize
"With stunning prose, lavish details, deep wisdom, and emotional precision, reading this book is like falling in love—my interest in everything else was lost." —Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal

"The Dictionary of Animal Languages is such a special book, suffused with an almost painterly intelligence. Sopinka's characters experience the world with an intensity we associate with children and visionaries. Watching them navigate the difficulties of the humdrum and the glamorous both is a distinctive, if unsettling, pleasure." —Rivka Galchen, author of American Innovations and Atmospheric Disturbances
"Not only a dictionary of animal language, but also an atlas of the human heart, Heidi Sopinka's gorgeous debut novel maps the difficult territory between history and memory, love and loss." —Johanna Skibsrud, Giller-winning author of The Sentimentalists
"Elements in the book build and shift, weaving together to create a vivid and powerfully human reckoning of a life, of aging and loss, of a century of conflict, and of the relationship between the natural and the industrial world.” —The Toronto Star
“Transfixing.” —AnOther Magazine
“Masterfully written in expressive prose.” —The Irish Examiner

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