'He could not find one single more word to say. I just want to be free. He could not say those words. They had already withered in his mind, turned to dust. He did not even know, he marveled now, what the hell those words had meant.'
Acclaimed novelist Charlotte Wood takes a character from her bestselling book The Children and turns her unflinching gaze on him and his world in her extraordinary novel, Animal People. Set in Sydney over a single day, Animal People traces a watershed day in the life of Stephen, aimless, unhappy, unfulfilled - and without a clue as to how to make his life better.
His dead-end job, his demanding family, his oppressive feelings for Fiona and the pitiless city itself ... the great weight of it all threatens to come crashing down on him. The day will bring untold surprises and disasters, but will also show him - perhaps too late - that only love can set him free.
Sharply observed, hilarious, tender and heartbreaking, Animal People is a portrait of urban life, a meditation on the conflicted nature of human-animal relationships, and a masterpiece of storytelling. Filled with shocks of recognition and revelation, it shows a writer of great depth and compassion at work.
Stephen is not an ‘animal person’. He’s not a dog-lover or a cat-lover; he is baffled by doggie sweaters and hates the itch of animal fur. At the zoo kiosk where he works Stephen observes the inanity of people cooing and ahhing at caged animals who could care less.
Stephen especially hates his perceived soullessness for not connecting with all creatures’ great and small. He hates that every day in the city he observes the cruelty between human beings – those who ignore The Big Issue sellers, or who sneer at junkies and side-step the homeless. Yet people worship their pets, they give medals to bomb-sniffing dogs and offer triple-digit rewards for lost animals.
Stephen muses on these thoughts throughout one day in a crowded, soulless big city. His head is clogged with disillusionment with the city and his life, because on this day he intends to dump his girlfriend. As Stephen goes through the motions of his crappy job and choking life, receiving phone-calls from his nagging widowed mother and controlling sister, he counts down to the moment when he’ll be free of Fiona.
‘Animal People’ is the new literary fiction release from Australian author Charlotte Wood.
Stephen is a character from Wood’s successful 2007 novel, ‘The Children’ – about a family’s pilgrimage to see their dying father. I haven’t read ‘The Children’, but that didn’t hamper my decadent enjoyment of ‘Animal People’ – a book that is equal parts raw, funny, voyeuristic, unsettling and all together wonderful.
Stephen has an albatross around his neck as he goes about his day. He intends to dump Fiona, his girlfriend who also happens to be the ex-sister-in-law of his sister. In leaving Fiona, Stephen will also be losing her two children, girls Ella and Larry, whom he has affectionately come to think of as his own. As his day drags on Stephen’s increasing paranoia and dread at the impending dumping turns his outlook on life rather bleak. He starts to notice things, like a suspicious plastic-wrapped package lying on the floor of the bus. When he accidentally hits a pedestrian (a junkie that everyone tells him he should drive off on) he remembers again and again her head bouncing on bitumen.
Stephen’s wry observations of life in the big city are disturbingly astute. Throughout the book I was nodding along like a bobblehead, muttering ‘yes!’ under my breath at his hit-the-nail-on-the-head accuracies. Everything he muses on is so affirming and precise. Like the collective pity/relief we feel while sitting on buses and trains when the crazy person (because there’s always a crazy person) picks someone else to latch onto and make uncomfortable with their insane chit-chat.
But the worst thing you never got used to was this: the man beside him now leaned suddenly close, making Stephen shut his eyes. You never got used to being trapped into intimacy with the mad.
Stephen’s circling observations about ‘animal people’ and various dog/cat/ferret lovers are also hotly astute. Through Stephen, Wood points out the ludicrousness of certain pet-centric activities. The most accurate animal observation of Stephen’s though, is his musings on the accused awfulness of those who don’t like animals and don’t actively seek out their company;
Stephen knew he demonstrated some lack of humanity by not being a Dog Person. This seemed unfair. He was not a cat person either. He was not an animal person in the same way he was not a musical person, or an intellectual person. One was born to these things, like the colour of one’s eyes, or the length of one’s legs. Not to be musical or intellectual was unremarkable and provoked no suspicion. But not to be an animal person somehow meant he wasn’t fully human.
Charlotte Wood’s writing is lulling and affirming. She has a keen eye for society’s inanities and flaws, and her characterizations are luscious and accurate – from our day-long journey with Stephen as we read his unravelling, to the ‘Facebook’ girls he overhears on the bus. Wood writes all of these characters with envious precision, so we piece together Stephen’s puzzle over the day, but in one line of dialogue we have Fiona’s ex-husband all figured out. ‘Animal People’ was a beautiful and poignant novel, and I’m going to make sure it’s not my last Charlotte Wood read.