The Little Animals by Sarah Tolmie

Canadian author Sarah Tolmie’s The Little Animals provides a fictional recounting of the discoveries of Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch draper who had a side interest in producing “fine optical instruments,” including microscopes. Van Leeuwenhoek used his microscopes to examine drops of water, blood, and other objects, observing single-celled organisms, red blood cells, and other entities visible only under magnification. He referred to the creatures he saw as “animalcules” or “little animals,” hence the book’s title.

Van Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632 in Delft, Netherlands. His discoveries were cutting-edge at the time.

With the aid of his microscopes, Van Leeuwenhoek “sees monsters: creatures more bizarre than those painted by Bosch, with many legs and no heads and bodies that make no sense.” He finds his discoveries dizzying. His thoughts “give him vertigo,” and

“They make him fear that he is living through a monstrous time, in which infinity is creeping into everything. Occasionally he has looked through the artificial eye of the microscope and has had to clutch the table for fear of falling in. Into the inexplicable, teeming world of the animalcule, in which he would not last a minute but would be torn apart by millions of chomping jaws.”

Evocative prose like the paragraph above is one of the factors that makes the book enjoyable. The Little Animals is an engaging story recounted with vivid and striking prose. The novel provides a strong sense of time and place, reflecting Tolmie’s background research.

In a short section titled “A Note on Historicity,” Tolmie notes that she has taken liberties with certain aspects of Van Leeuwenhoek’s life. One example is the time line of his discoveries. Another is the addition of a character called the goose girl, whom Van Leeuwenhoek meets in the opening paragraphs of the book. Though uneducated and socially awkward, the goose girl, too, believes in the presence of the little animals, for a different reason. She thinks she has heard them talking to her. While Van Leeuwenhoek has seen them with his eyes, she has seen them with her heart.

The goose girl is a colourful character who lends mysticism to the proceedings. Tolmie notes that the goose girl is “broadly drawn from the Brothers Grimm,” but she rings true as a character nonetheless. Tolmie’s description of the goose flock, each with their own personalities, is also striking. The novel includes other interesting characters as well, including a young artist, a painter friend of Leeuwenhoek’s, and a male sex trade worker.

The Little Animals received a Special Citation at the 2020 Philip K. Dick Awards.

Sarah Tolmie is the author of the poetry collection The Art of Dying (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), the 120-sonnet sequence Trio (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), and the chapbook Sonnet in a Blue Dress and Other Poems (Baseline Press, 2014). She has published two novels with Aqueduct Press, The Little Animals (2019) and The Stone Boatmen (2014), as well as two short fiction collections, Two Travelers (2016) and NoFood (2014). She is a medievalist trained at the University of Toronto and Cambridge and is a Professor of English at the University of Waterloo.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Aqueduct Press (May 1 2019)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1619761610
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1619761612

Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in New Myths, Star*Line, The Future Fire, Triangulation: Habitats, and other venues. Lisa’s speculative haibun collection, In Days to Come, is available from Hiraeth Publishing. You can find out more about Lisa’s writing at