Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2020.
The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist is due to be announced later this month and I’d like to think that Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country may feature on it.
This wholly original novel is unique in so many ways, not least of which is its premise: there’s a flu-like pandemic raging across Australia that allows those infected to understand what animals are saying. But being able to communicate with non-humans — including mammals, birds and insects — isn’t as wonderful as you might expect, for the messages, random, garbled and incessant, are frightening: the animals are calling for help.
Preposterous but plausible
I ate this book up in the space of a weekend. I would put it down and then itch to pick it up again. It’s spellbinding in a way few dystopian novels can be spellbinding. It posits a truly preposterous idea, yet makes it seem totally plausible.
The story is narrated by a kickass, foul-mouthed protagonist called Jean, who works as a guide at a local wildlife zoo. Jean has “issues” — she’s a hard drinker, a chain smoker and likes rough-and-ready sex with her married male friend, which she usually doesn’t remember the next day. She doesn’t normally get on with people, but she’s devoted to her granddaugher Kim, loves her wayward missing-in-action adult son Lee and has a soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.
The latter “relationship” is important, because when the pandemic hits the local area, and Lee turns up infected to “steal back” Kim and do a runner, it is Sue who provides the companionship Jean craves when she hits the road looking for her son. And it is Sue who is the first animal to communicate with her.
Half the traffic lights are out. The camper’s got low revs, takes off like a baby elephant. I plug in my phone, pull a slug of Angela’s bourbon, wind down the windows and gun it anyway. Beside me sits a dingo dog. Some wolf, some kelpie camp mutt. Her sandy behind on the shotgun seat. Panting, she draws in great gulps of the hot air. A flash of tooth.
OH SHIT. (DEAD BITS
OF ME.) THAT ONE’S
FOR THE GROUND. THAT’S FOR MY
THERE. AND THERE.
‘Why are you helping me, Sue? I mean, why aren’t you with your brothers?’
She peels her nose from the window. Amber eyes swirling.
ITS WHOLE FACE
A DESERT WITH WATER. IT’S
As the pandemic progresses, those infected begin to lose their minds because they can’t shut off the overwhelming babble of animal voices. There’s no quiet. Everything is noise.
Jean keeps her head while everyone around her loses theirs. Her journey is perilous and deliriously strange.
Bold and experimental
Tightly plotted, bold and experimental, The Animals in that Country does intriguing things with language (as you might have noticed from the above quote). The animal voices emerge as an unstoppable stream of consciousness, none of which makes much sense, but the way it is laid out on the page makes it appear like a brutal kind of poetry. (In places, it reminded me just a little of Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.)
But it is Jean’s obscene, audacious voice which provides the real flavour. I liked being in her company, even if I didn’t always like what she got up to or what she witnessed.
By the time I got to the end of this dazzling novel, I felt spent — but in a good way. This is a challenging and compelling read, one that makes you look at the world, and how we relate to animals, in a completely different way. I feel forever changed having read it.
The Animals in that Country was published in Australia last month. It will be published in the UK and USA in September, and Canada in October (although the Kindle version is available to buy in all territories now).
This is my 7th book for #AWW2020.
UPDATE September 2020: This is my 1st book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction