Friday 28 August 2020


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The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay    {Reviewed by STELLA}
It’s the flu, but nothing like you have seen before. When Laura Jean McKay started writing her latest novel, The Animals in That Country, she had no idea she would be launching her book virtually because she would be in lock-down in New Zealand during a worldwide pandemic! So, you might not be in the mood for a ‘plague’ book, but this one will surprise you. It’s completely unexpected and refreshing. The Zooflu has hit Australia and everyone is getting pinkeye and talking to the animals. Enter our heroine — if you could possibly call her that — Jean, and her animal companion, a dingo called Sue. Jean’s an alcoholic, chain-smoking (if she can get any ciggies) brassy mess with a heart, her greatest love being her grandchild Kimberly, working as a tour guide at a wildlife park and hankering after a ranger’s job — one that Ange, the boss and also Kimberly’s Mum, won’t give her. Sue, an inmate at the park, is the top dog in the enclosure and hankering for a bit of freedom. When the Zooflu hits the park despite their best efforts to keep it out, everything goes to custard. Food is short, the animals are restless and the workers are cracking up, running away or talking to the animals. Or often, trying to communicate that they, the warders are not the enemy. The Zooflu hits everyone with different intensity — the most severe being communication with insects, which leads to some very trance-like experiences for the human species. As Jean finds out, being able to communicate with the animals — she has always wondered what they have been thinking and in the past and has articulated their wants aloud to anyone that would listen — isn’t a walk in the park, and their ways of talking are vastly different from human patterns, with layered meanings and oblique messages for their human companions. When Jean’s wayward son, Lee, turns up at the fence begging to be let in, despite being infected, Jean succumbs, much to her regret. A few days later he’s gone, taking Kimberly with him. Off to see the whales. (The idea of communing with the whales will never have the same resonance after you read this novel). Jean’s guilt drives her to follow, despite the crisis of the wildlife park in freefall (Ange is talking to reptiles, including the crocodile), with Sue by her side. As they traverse Australia — a remade wilderness of human proportions, as resources (fuel, food, alcohol) become scarce and hardy fellows in utes and with guns roam in packs, blocking their ears and noses with anything that comes to hand to keep out the sound and scents of animals — Jean becomes increasing feral and reliant on Sue to help find her granddaughter. Their travels are both hilarious and tense with both animals and humans. Popping in to see her Mum at the old folks' home, she finds the elderly happily interacting with the birds. They free a load of confused pigs from a truck, watch a child lost to the ants, hear the birds call out ‘not yet, not today’ for Jean’s eyes and other tasty morsels, come across towns where animals aren’t welcome, get robbed of petrol and take to the road on foot, meet oddities isolated in their own madness, and others celebrating their new communion. The Animals in That Country is a crazy, yet deeply philosophical, novel about our relationship with animals, what we see and fail to see, and our role as only one of the species in our ecosystem. And with Jean and Sue and their changing power relationship at the centre of this story, you are rewarded with a sharply funny, bizarre and profound exploration of these themes.   

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