What a mad, mad ride Laura Jean McKay takes you on in The Animals in That Country! During the past week McKay won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for fiction. That was enough for me to rat through my TBR piles looking for the ARC I knew I had tucked away somewhere. In this year of project-read-my-own-books, I will embrace any and all opportunities to read the books already in my possession.
The premise for The Animals in That Country is quite simple – a flu virus – the ‘zoo flu’ as it becomes known in the book – causes the communication barrier between humans and other animals to disappear. What could possibly go wrong? Surely we love our pets and if they could talk to us they would finally tell us how much they love us too.
McKay sets up these very expectations beautifully, with Jean, the hard-drinking, tough-talking grandmother of five year old Kimberley. Kimberley’s mother and Jean both work at a zoo in an unspecified outback region. Jean regularly amuses Kim with her animal voices,
‘What’s he saying?’ she asks around it [her thumb in her mouth].
‘Well, he’s saying, “Have you seen some mice around here?’
‘What’s the other one saying?’
‘The other one’s saying: “Yep, I ate them.”
“Drats,” says the first one.
“No, not rats, mice!”
Of course! If animals could really talk, it would be all about food and it would be very cute. Right?
Very, very wrong.
McKay has a lot to say about just how wrong that thinking is. Not only are the animals not grateful or happy about how we’ve treated them, they also have their own stuff going on and we do not figure very high in their thoughts at all.
Not that it’s that easy for humans to understand what the animals are saying. It’s not so much words coming out of their mouths, but thoughts and impressions vibrating off their fur, their paws, their ears, their tails. A whole cacophony of sounds and words that make little sense at face value, but as a whole, only make sense to young Kim.
‘You have to look at all their whole body all the same time, not just the bits.’ [says Kim].
says a tail.
Sip it –
Musky fog from a bum calls,
You get the picture. A cryptic cacophony of sound and impressions that appears random and nonsensical. And there’s no way to turn it off. Every animal has something to say, and if you get a really bad dose of the zoo flu, you can also hear all the birds and all the insects talking too. The air is filled with the noise of their thoughts. It’s enough to send you crazy.
Jean manages to remain relatively calm as the sound surrounds her. First, because she’s tough. Second, the alcohol. But then her son, Lee runs off with Kimberley and Jean becomes desperate to track them down. A mad-cap road trip ensues with Jean and Sue, a dingo from the zoo that Jean raised from a pup, helping out with her great sense of smell and loyalty to her queen|mother.
By the end of the trip, Jean and Sue are no closer to understanding each other. The limits of language to communicate effectively are exposed. But there is no denying the feelings that they maintain for each other. And curiously, along with the relief that washes over all of us when Jean is no longer able to hear the animals talk, there is also a sense of loss and missed opportunity.
There is nothing cute about this talking animal story. This is no Wind in the Willows or Charlottes Web or Doctor Dolittle. The humans were not in control and the animals had their own agenda in McKay’s ‘zoo flu’ world.
I’m delighted that a young writer, such as McKay is selected to win such a rich literature award. There is a lot of promise in McKay’s writing, even if I did find myself skimming some sections. Her idea was audacious and provocative and I’m very keen to see what she can do next.
I’m also curious to know if McKay based her title on Margaret Atwood’s poem of the same name? Atwood’s poem ends with a stark reminder of the divide between human and animal.
In this country the animals have the faces of animals. Their eyes flash once in car headlights and are gone. Their deaths are not elegant. They have the faces of no-one.