Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 264 pages; 2011.
Charlotte Wood is an accomplished and award-winning writer who is largely unknown outside of her native Australia. I’ve read two of her novels — The Submerged Cathedral and The Children — having purchased them on trips back home and loved them both. Animal People, picked up on my last trip, only confirms my high opinion of her work.
A day in the life
The book spans just one day in the life of Stephen Connolly, a middle-aged man who’s feeling slightly lost and depressed with the way his life has panned out. We have met Stephen before — he’s the “drifter” in Wood’s previous novel The Children (but note, you don’t need to have read that book to appreciate this one — they’re completely stand-alone novels), the one who’s never followed a “proper” career path, the one who his parents and his siblings are always worried about and fretting over.
Now, several years later, he’s living in Sydney, working a dead-end job in a food kiosk at the zoo and is constantly mistaken as a chef because of his (quite hilarious) penchant for wearing black-and-white chequered trousers, a bargain purchase from Aldi.
On the day in question, he’s decided that it’s finally time to dump his long-term girlfriend, Fiona, who has been putting pressure on him to move in with her and her two (bratty) children from her failed marriage. But as the day enfolds, Stephen’s plans get thwarted, then sabotaged, and before he knows it, he’s beginning to doubt whether dumping Fiona is the right thing to do at all.
Trying to fit in
Animal People deals with one man’s struggle to find his place in a world that feels completely foreign to him — in all kinds of ways. The book’s title comes from the notion that you either love animals or you don’t, and Stephen, who has an allergy to cats and dogs, falls into the latter camp while everyone around him — his own family, his neighbours — are slavishly looking after and spoiling pets of all sizes, shapes and descriptions, while sneering at homeless people or those unable to fend for themselves.
When Stephen told people he worked at the zoo their faces would light up. ‘Oh, I love animals! How wonderful!’ they gushed. How lucky he was, how privileged. They held him in high regard, and waited for tales of giraffe-teeth cleaning or lion-cub nursing. When he told them he worked only in the fast-food kiosk, their faces fell. But then they recovered. Still, to be surrounded by all those beautiful creatures. He usually agreed at this point, to finish the conversation. He did not say he found the zoo depressing. It was not the cages so much as the people — their need to possess, their disappointment, the way they wanted the animals to notice them.
Struggling to cope with commitment, city life and modern living, Stephen’s constantly pulled in different directions and fails to live up to anyone’s expectations — even expectations that are morally dubious.
For instance, when he accidentally hits a woman — a junkie — in his car on his morning commute, he takes her to the hospital, but when he relates the story to his colleagues afterwards — scared and a little bit embarrassed by the incident — he’s shocked when they tell him he should have just left her on the road. “My sister had a junkie boyfriend once,” one of them says. “They’re all scum, and they all lie. If she dies she deserves it. Probably would have O’D anyway.”
Unsurprisingly, given the book is set at a time of unprecedented prosperity in Australia’s history, one of the themes of Animal People is class. Stephen might have a job, but he’s down near the bottom of the social rung, scraping by as best he can, not that far removed from the junkie he tries to help.
And perhaps that partly explains his reluctance to make a serious commitment to Fiona, who was previously married to a rich lawyer and has an amazing house filled with everything anyone could possibly want: how can he ever compete with that?
Big themes, but lots of humour
Wood has a remarkable eye for detail, of getting dialogue pitch-perfect and sketching characters that are three-dimensional and believable, but she never wastes a word: the prose is reined-in, almost clipped, and yet it reads as elegantly and smoothly as a ride in a sleek sports car.
She knows what makes people tick, what scares them, what delights them, what makes them jealous or angry. And she completely understands the tensions, rivalries and complicated relationships between siblings (and their parents) in a way that sets her apart from your average run-of-the-mill novelist.
While the story deals with big themes — our obsession with material goods, social prestige and climbing the career ladder; the ways in which we relate to animals and anthromorphisise them; and how we find our place in an ever-changing world — it’s done with a lightness of touch and a good dose of humour. I laughed a lot while reading this book — and not just at Stephen’s fashion sense. There’s a terribly funny team-building exercise that had me cringing inside, and an hysterical children’s birthday party that turns into my idea of a nightmare.
But what makes Animal People such a terrific read is Wood’s ability to tell a relatively modest story about an ordinary man in a truly entertaining (and effortless) way. I was gripped from start to finish, and then I wanted to turn back to the start and read it all over again.
Unfortunately, this book is not available outside of Australia (it doesn’t even have a listing on Amazon.co.uk), but you can buy a signed copy direct from the author’s official website or try Fishpond.co.uk to import it postage free.