The Dictionary of Animal Languages

Heidi Sopinka

The Dictionary of Animal Languages
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The Dictionary of Animal Languages

Heidi Sopinka

A thrillingly elegant yet raw evocation of a woman clawing her way to a creative life, inspired by the story of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

Born into a wealthy family in northern England, sent to boarding school, and educated by nuns, Ivory Frame escapes to interwar Paris where she finds herself through art, living amongst the most brilliant and bohemian people: the surrealists.

Torn between a volatile and all-consuming affair with a Russian painter, and her soaring ambition, Ivory’s life is violently interrupted by the Second World War. But her urge to create never deserts her.

Now, aged 90, Ivory labours defiantly in the frozen north at her last, greatest artwork - a vast account of animal language - alone except for her sharp research assistant Skeet.

And then unexpected news from the past arrives: this magnificently fervent, complex woman is told that she has a grandchild, despite never having had a child of her own …


In 2009 Heidi Sopinka travelled to Mexico City to interview the artist Leonora Carrington. She spent two whole days talking about love, art and loss. It was by this meeting that the book The Dictionary of Animal Languages was inspired. I love the artist Leonora Carrington and I am now also in love with Ivory Frame, the protagonist of this book. The parallels between Carrington and Ivory Frame are striking and it is such a shame that Carrington never got to read about her fictional self, sadly passing away in 2011.

We begin in a stone house with Ivory Frame, now aged in her nineties and still completing her greatest project yet, a dictionary of languages spoken by a wide range of animals. One morning a letter arrives. The letter states that Ivory has a grandchild, an event that usually calls for celebration, except Ivory has never had any children of her own.

The novel then moves back in time and we see that the young Ivory has a talent for art and, in particular, drawing. This does not go down well with her fellow students at the expensive and strict convent school to which she has been sent by her rich and distant parents. Eventually expelled, Ivory makes her way to Paris and enrols at the art academy. It is here that Ivory meets Tacita, another artist who takes her under her wing and introduces her to the bohemian set of Paris.

Ivory flourishes in Paris, she finds her place in the world, she finds her tribe among the artists that fill the streets and cafes of Paris and she falls deeply in love with Lev, a married Russian painter. When World War II breaks out, Ivory must leave everything she has known and everyone she has loved, especially Lev, behind. She escapes Europe and then, through her new nomadic existence, the beginnings of her dictionary start to emerge.

This is the debut novel from Sopinka and her ability to weave in and out of the life of both young and elderly Ivory shows an elegance and maturity rarely seen in first-time novelists.

Anna Rotar works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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