Hunting Piero

CANADIAN LITERATURE, #235, 2018Can the grotesque also be beautiful? The answer to this question, according to Wendy MacIntyre and Jim Nason, is a resounding “yes.” In their respective novels Hunting Piero and Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals, MacIntyre and Nason expose readers to the darkest sides of humanity: envy, lust, addiction, and murder. Following the tradition of animal allegory, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, animal symbolism plays a central role in both novels; most notable among these animals are the “magnificently grotesque” hybrid creatures that, in various ways, represent the human condition as an existential struggle.

The protagonist of Hunting Piero is Agnes Vane, a simian-looking woman whose identity quest is complicated by the cruel reactions that her unconventional facial features evoke from others. When Agnes discovers the artwork of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo, she connects deeply with his depictions of animal and human-animal hybrids like the “magnificently grotesque” monster (“part crocodile, part rhinoceros, part duck-billed platypus”) in the painter’s rendering of Perseus rescuing Andromeda.

Agnes enrols in university to further her study of di Cosimo’s universe. At first, she performs her scholarly duties with efficiency and ease, until she discovers an animal rights activist group that leads her down a rabbit hole of drama, scandal, and murder. Agnes is traumatized by the dark turn that her life has taken, and the novel follows her struggle to reclaim her self-control. In the end, she finds peace and begins to heal, a process that is facilitated by the empathy of another animal lover, Peter “Pinto” Devraig, whose variegated skin pigmentation wins him both his nickname and Agnes’ affection. The result is an uplifting ending, though perhaps it could have been reached in less than five hundred pages. While the chapters written from di Cosimo’s perspective provide some historical context for his art, one wonders if this information could have been incorporated into the main plot, thereby keeping the narrative focus on Agnes’ and Peter’s character development.

Hybrid creatures and provocative art also figure prominently in Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals, in part through the eccentric Skye Rayburn, a veterinarian who excels at her profession but struggles to express love and affection in her human relationships. When her daughter Moira dies tragically in a car accident, Skye is left to raise her two-year-old grandson, Duncan. Duncan’s father, unable to cope with the grief of losing Moira, succumbs to a life of alcoholism that leaves him homeless on the streets of Toronto.

Like Agnes, Duncan experiences social isolation during his childhood. He finds companionship from his grandmother, animals, and his imaginary friends (whose existence he maintains throughout the novel). One of these “imaginary” creatures is the spirit of a hundred thousand dead animals, which “looks like a prehistoric elephant and smells like lavender and formaldehyde. Black as a crow, her tusks are long as a horse’s ribs, and she sways from side to side like a snake.” The spirit of a hundred thousand dead animals (an expression Nason first encountered as a colleague’s description of the dissection room at Edinburgh’s Royal Dick Veterinary College) performs various metaphorical functions throughout the novel. It is “every dead animal [Skye had] ever cured or euthanized”; it is Duncan’s subconscious effort to manifest his absent father; it is the embodiment of Skye herself; it is a metaphor for interconnection. Distinct from Skye’s taxonomy of animals in her journal, “Life Lessons for Duncan” (in which she describes animals by scientific classifications and human attributes), the spirit of a hundred thousand dead animals is malleable and fluid, with a trace of the supernatural. This creature/concept provides comfort and companionship for Duncan and, significantly, inspires his art. While at first readers might be challenged by Skye’s abrasive personality and the non-linear timeline that travels between Kincardine, Ontario and Edinburgh, Scotland, this novel is an understated saga of complex characters and subtle, yet poignant imagery right to the very end.

Both Hunting Piero and Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals are replete with animal metaphors that blur the boundaries separating humans from animals. Though very different in writing style, both novels promote lessons in empathy and challenge readers to see the world from a different perspective by viewing it as a magnificently grotesque amalgamation of seemingly incongruous parts. The teachers of this lesson, in both cases, are the artists and the animals that inspire them.

Luxe, Fall 2017

Hunting Piero (Thistledown Press) is [Wendy] MacIntyre's fifth novel; the others include Mairi, The Applecross Spell, Apart, and Lucia's Masks. The latest book tells the story of Agnes, a young woman whose slightly simian features have caused her much grief. Agnes finds pupose in life when she becomes involved with a group of animal rights activists. But danger awaits. Expect violence, despair, magic realism and some great lessons in art history, particularly about the life of Italian Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo whose painting, Vulcan and Aeolus, is found in the National Gallery of Canada and serves as the cover image of MacIntyre's book. 

MacIntyre says she is not an animal rights activist herself, although she contributes money to animal-related charities and is a vegetarian. She spends an hour or two walking daily: It's a wonderful way to plan novels, she suggests. Although of "retirement age," MacIntrye says she must continue writing. "I'm just not basically very centred or happy if I'm not doing it. I love reading and being transported imaginatively to another world so when you're making a book yourself, you're there all the time."

— Paul Gessell

the Humm, December 2017

Interview by Kris Riendeau

When I received a copy of Hunting Piero in the mail, the first thing I noted was that it was written by a resident of Carleton Place. Wondering what a (new to me) local author had chosen to write about, I was fascinated to learn that the novel is “…a haunting adventure that intertwines the lives of legendary Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo and two young animal rights activists whose protests go fatally wrong.” Suffice it to say that I was intrigued! 526 captivating pages later (and after viewing several of di Cosimo’s paintings on the internet), I have become more familiar with his life and art, but I was still curious as to what drew author Wendy MacIntyre to this subject matter. Fortunately, she was happy to answer my questions!

the Humm: Where did you first encounter di Cosimo’s work, and what about it — or about him — motivated you to make him one of the subjects of this novel?

Wendy MacIntyre: I first became aware of Piero di Cosimo in my university days through the American poet, Robert Duncan. In his poem, The Fire, he described the scene of di Cosimo’s magnificent painting, The Forest Fire, with hundreds of animals and birds fleeing their burning home, including a wild boar with a human face who shows a “philosophic sorrow.”

That description led me to seek out a reproduction of the painting and I was captivated by the diverse company of animals and birds in the foreground, and the wide range of emotions they show: a pacing, agitated lion and an anxious mother bear, for example. They are all so highly individualized, and the boar and the deer, who have human faces, are a visual shock, surreal. Some of the animals appear to be speaking, as if they have an urgent message to pass on to us.

The mysteries of that painting, and its beauty, stayed with me and I think I knew from that point that I wanted to write about di Cosimo. The more I looked at the sensitive depictions of animals in his paintings, the more certain I became that he saw the animal kingdom as a source of profound joy, and that his work seems to urge us toward a respectful relationship with other creature life, where we look at animals with wonder, rather than seeing them as objects for our use.

the Humm: As the two young modern protagonists participate in their 21st century lives and struggles, one of them also engages in “hunting” Piero di Cosimo, who lived and painted near the end of the fifteenth century. What were some of the challenges of writing in two different temporal settings?

Wendy MacIntyre:

Moving between the 15th and the 21st century was really just a question of imaginatively inhabiting the particular character, and his or her time. So if it was Piero in 1495, I would research what was happening in Florence that year, and return again and again to the details of the paintings, to enter his world. I find long walks help open a channel for listening to your characters and making these imaginative shifts.

the Humm: Your protagonists are at a fairly tumultuous stage in their lives, as they enter college and begin to experience the world as young adults. Your depiction of both their internal turmoil and their sometimes awkward interactions with others are so honest and poignant that they transported me right back to my youth. Why did you choose to write about that formative age, and what helped you to convey it so accurately?

Wendy MacIntyre: Agnes was the first of my contemporary characters who came to me. I knew from the very beginning that she was both young and vulnerable, an outsider. So in a sense, she was a given — a gift from the unconscious. And I was drawn to a group of young characters who are outraged by a wrong they see happening everywhere, from factory farms to medical laboratories, but are still naive enough to believe they can end animals’ suffering easily, even magically, through the perfect activist protest. They are so impressionable themselves, they believe it will be a simple matter to make others feel equally passionate about animals’ rights and bring about this major moral change worldwide.

I drew on my own adolescence, and feelings of alienation and social awkwardness, for Agnes’s and Pinto’s characters.

the Humm: You approach the theme of animal rights from several angles in this novel, yet you are never pedantic. In fact, the tactics of some characters occasionally result in situations that are antithetical to their motives. Why did you choose to address this topic with some ambiguity?

Wendy MacIntyre: I didn’t consciously plan that the group’s protest would have such terrible consequences. That was just the way the story evolved, as it took shape. But despite their failure, they all stay true to their conviction that, as a species, we must try to end animal suffering, however and wherever we can.

the Humm: Where is your book available locally, and how can our readers find out more about you and your writing?

Wendy MacIntyre: Hunting Piero is available at Mill Street Books, and there is more about me and my writing on my website . I’ll be giving a reading at the Carleton Place Public Library on December 14 at 7 pm.

Toronto Star, 2018

As a young woman, Agnes was drawn to the work of Piero di Cosimo, the Renaissance painter famous for his fantastical creatures, monsters not unlike Agnes, whose classmates call her Monkey-Girl. At university, where she studies art history, she becomes involved with The Ethical Ark, the meeting place for an animal-rights group. Among its members is Pinto, a philosophy student shunned for his unusual appearance. Agnes, Piero and Pinto come together in a fabulist tale that crosses the centuries with its themes of art, ethics and the natural world. Author Wendy MacIntyre lives in the Ottawa suburb of Carleton Place.