Review: When I Saw the Animal by Bernard Cohen, UQP

Erich Mayer

When I Saw the Animal is a delightful collection of short stories and whatever the length, Bernard Cohen’s focus is the human condition.
Review: When I Saw the Animal by Bernard Cohen, UQP

Bernard Cohen's When I Saw the Animal. 

When I Saw the Animal is a delightful collection of short stories – stories that traverse a dozen or so pages to running for just a sentence or two. Whatever the length, Bernard Cohen’s focus is the human condition. So there are stories about family interactions, stories about miscommunication, stories of introspection, snippets of overheard conversations, speculations about other passengers on public transport, and personal musings. 

To say Cohen is a man of few words is not to belittle his extensive output. Rather, it is to point out that he needs only a few words to brilliantly evoke a mood or moment: ‘The neighbours’ voices produce the occasional word, hers hectoring, constant and angry; his is almost inaudible, but goading nonetheless.’

Some of the stories are both funny and sad, including a charming love story. But all the stories, regardless of theme, tell us something about ourselves and our friends and relations, from the way we deal with conflict and misunderstandings to how easy it is to deceive others – or ourselves.

Cohen’s writing style makes for easy reading, except perhaps when a language unknown to the reader is invoked for effect. And the elegance of his writing is such that a few of his stories could be described as poetry. Reading Cohen’s stories a second time around reveals nuances missed the first time, as some of Cohen’s writing, for all its readability, swirls with undercurrents. 

Some parents with more than one child strive hard not to have favourites; or, if they do, they try to hide their preference. Whether a similar protocol should apply to reviewers of short stories is open to debate. Having said that, one of my favourite stories is ‘Noiseless’. It is written as a stream of consciousness by a man very angry with his lawyer for not delivering a desired outcome. As he works himself up about perceived injustices, things go from bad to worse and yet culminate in a remarkably satisfying conclusion.

Another favourite is ‘Conversations with Robots’ in which the robot is a ‘cyber-Rogerian therapybot’ acting in a most irritating manner that mimics a human therapist to perfection. Then there are the very short pieces referred to in the index as ‘Short Twos’. Here is one of them: ‘She squeezed him and squeezed him until he was quite outfuriated.’

Cohen is justifiably well known for his popular writing workshops for young people. Reading these stories is enough to make any aspiring writer wish to be young enough to attend one of these workshops, where I imagine one would greatly benefit from the wisdom, insight and humour that characterise his short stories.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
When I Saw the Animal
Author: Bernard Cohen 
AUD $ 22.95
Category: Fiction, UQP Short Stories Series
Release Date: 17/09/2018
Pages: 248
ISBN: 978 0 7022 6021 6
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog