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Animal People by Charlotte Wood

With animals making the headlines lately - crocs on the prowl, tiger attacks, scavenging wolves, and a court case about the alleged slavery of SeaWorld whales - this book makes an interesting read. The protagonist, Stephen, is not an animal person “in the same way he was not a musical person, or an intellectual person”, but he feels judged by it - to “not be an animal person meant he wasn’t fully human.” Throughout the novel he contemplates the ways, and the reasons, people attach themselves to animals. He works at a zoo, but only in the fast-food kiosk, and gets to observe daily human/animal interactions.

Charlotte Wood has achieved something wonderful with this book - she has, with understated elegance, leveled the playing field between people and animals. There is much of her novel that reminded me of Christos Tsoilkas’s The Slap, in the way that both books are populated with ordinary, average people with ordinary, average lives and preoccupations, without trying to hold back on any of those parts of our characters that make us all human (greed, cowardice, laziness, and so on). For me, Animal People seemed the tighter novel, and putting people into a hall of mirrors with animals made for some very revealing insights.

We follow Stephen through a dreadful single day where he plans to break up with his girlfriend, and we are with him every cloying step of the way. I would want to flee his situation, it’s all so close and the relationships are so knotted. I liked Stephen - he is so well fleshed out that it’s easy to forgive those bits of him that make him more animal than human. He leaves a crowded bus because he thinks a strange object under a seat could be an explosive device. He bites the father of his girlfriend’s child. We see him going out of his way to do the right thing by a junky, where he had previously responded to his own elderly mother with impatience and frustration. We see and feel vividly his guilt and confusion almost minute by minute. There are conversations that go horribly wrong. At one point Stephen goes into a reverie about living on a bush block, raising organic vegetables after reading a line in a newspaper, “I work in people’s gardens to earn money for food. Sometimes I collect firewood and sell it.” His fantasy melts away when he discovers it’s a third world aid advertisement, quoting a starving Darfur woman. This kind of black humour runs through the book, and it all adds to the moody haze of the novel.

Stephen, the man who claims he is not an animal person, questions the roles people ask their animals to fulfill. He is able to recognise that a dog being awarded a bravery medal is madness, that a dog wouldn’t, couldn’t, act out of “patriotic valour”. He watches people at the zoo, and their need to be noticed by the animals. Stephen, even with his severe fur allergy, turns out to be very much an ‘animal person’. Stephen first appeared in Wood’s acclaimed novel, The Children, and while they can each be read without the other, it will obviously enrich the experience to read both. I loved this book, and read it in a day and will read it again tomorrow.

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