Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

Animal People

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, but you can buy a signed copy direct from the author’s official website or try to import it postage free.

Australia, Author, Book review, D'Arcy Niland, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 257 pages; 2009.

D’Arcy Niland was an Australian author who wrote six novels, several short story collections, some poetry, radio and television plays, and an autobiography between 1955 and his untimely death in 1969. He was married to New Zealand writer Ruth Park of The Harp in the South trilogy fame.

He was best known for his first novel, The Shiralee, first published in 1955, which went on to become an international bestseller. It was turned into a film, starring Peter Finch, in 1957. But I largely knew it as a TV mini-series, produced in 1987, starring Bryan Brown. I didn’t watch the series, because I remember the promotional adverts made it look like mawkish sentimental claptrap, and sadly that put me off ever wanting to read the book.

Turns out that was my loss, because The Shiralee, recently re-issued as a Penguin Modern Classic, is an absolute gem, one of those delicious reads that transports you to another time and place, and makes you hungry to read more of the same thing.

Life on the road

The story is set during the Great Depression (I think — it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure). Macauley is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). He even stores his money in “a travelling branch of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company — an empty golden syrup tin”.

As he crosses the byways and highways of rural NSW, Macauley is accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, when Macauley discovered his wife in bed with another man. Taking Buster was supposed to be a form of punishment, but it seems to have backfired, and his quiet, frugal lifestyle has now become tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down.

And yet, while it’s slowly dawning on him that Buster’s mother doesn’t want her daughter back, Macauley is getting used to the company — even if he may not want to admit it.

They had walked for two hours, and Macauley couldn’t help but observe, as he had been observing, the growing endurance of the little girl. It dragged from him some slight sense of gratification. He wasn’t paying out tribute to the child: he was merely feeling the small but positive diminution of responsibility. But it wouldn’t be long now. At the end of the third hour and a steadily maintained pace, Buster’s feet were scuffling, and she was whinging to be carried.
‘Don’t kid me,’ Macauley said. ‘You can go on a bit yet.’
‘I can’t. I can’t,’ the kid whimpered desperately.
‘Come on.’
Macauley took her hand, and kept going. He felt the tugging weight. It got heavier and heavier. It was not brutality, but purposeful tactics. He stopped them short of the verge of exhaustion. When the child was swaying, leaning back from the mooring of his hand, the legs wobbling, the voice dreeing mournfully while the tears flowed unattended down the crumpled face — that was when Macauley picked her up.
She was asleep in five minutes, her head on his shoulder.
Pity crept like a little flame into the smoulder of his resentment, but the resentment was too strong for it and it was smothered. Macauley told himself this could not go on. He was vehement.
Yet when he saw emus he had a wish that she could see them; when he saw the wild pigs had been rooting up ground he had an inclination to point it out; and when he came upon a goanna disgorging at his approach a kitten rabbit he had an instinct to wake her up and show her the sight.

The story covers Macauley’s and Buster’s adventures on the road. To write much more would spoil the enjoyment for others, but it’s safe to say there’s a few brawls, a run-in with the police and a lot of miserable weather. In fact, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, and I was surprised, on more than one occasion, at the turn of events. (Note, there are no chapter breaks, so it’s almost impossible to put this book down, because there never seems to be a natural point to stop reading.)

A bygone way of life

It’s interesting to get a glimpse of a bygone way of life, particularly given that allowing a child to live such a rough and ready lifestyle today would be tantamount to child abuse.

There’s a wonderful sense of friendship and camaraderie in this book, too, not only between father and daughter, but between the many old friends Macauley meets along the way, as well as the new people he bumps into who think nothing of sharing their food and their shelter. It’s certainly a less suspicious era, where people are trusted at face value, and no one thinks twice about picking up strangers wandering along the roadside.

Obviously, The Shiralee is a product of its time, and there’s a very light smattering of racist terminology throughout.

But the book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving. It is never mawkish, never sentimental.

I wanted the book to go on forever because I so enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully smart and good-hearted people, but when it didn’t, I felt like having a good, long howl: it’s got a cracker of an emotional ending.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says the book is about the “responsibility of fatherhood” but I like this description best, because it sums it up perfectly: “Niland’s writing reveals a man who was profoundly aware of the paradoxical burdens and vitality of the shiralees which all human beings must carry.”

I can’t praise The Shiralee enough and look forward to hunting out Niland’s back catalogue, sadly all out of print, in the weeks to come.