Sometimes, dear reader, this whole book reviewing thing is more complicated than I could ever have imagined.
For me, reading Charlotte Wood’s Animal People was an incredibly personal experience. The task of writing about this novel has led to much soul-searching.
Every time I’ve sat down at my desk to review Animal People, I’ve found myself sliding out from behind the keyboard, distracted, uncomfortable, searching for something else to do.
I’ve been putting off writing this review, not because I didn’t like the novel, but because Animal People broke my heart. And, to be completely honest, I’m still trying to put all the pieces back together.
Although this is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve written, I had to write it. Because I really, really want you to read this novel…
by Charlotte Wood
Published in 2011
In the same way that the most devoted pet owners eventually begin to look like their animals, Charlotte Wood’s novel, Animal People, toys with the gap between animals and people, until man and beast begin to bear an eerie resemblance. The result is an emotionally intense, devastatingly clever novel that leaves the reader with plenty to think about.
Animal People traces one day in the life of Stephen, a character Wood has explored previously in The Children. Working a nowhere job and living alone in a sparsely-decorated little house in one of the city’s grimiest suburbs, Stephen is the kind of guy who, if you walked by him on the street, you’d dismiss him as a loser.
The only bright spot in Stephen’s dismal life is his unlikely relationship with Fiona, a middle-class, divorced mother of two beautiful girls.
As the city heat becomes more and more oppressive, Stephen’s day slowly unfolds as a series of bizarre, disastrous encounters. Wearily, Stephen makes his way through the suburbs towards Fiona’s house, where for reasons he can’t articulate or even begin to explain, Stephen has resolved to end their relationship.
Set in an alternate Sydney with a few subtle name changes, Animal People perfectly evokes all the cruelty, isolation and snobbery of my adopted city. As I read, I found myself nodding in recognition as I recognised Stephen’s urban malaise, and the fondness with which he recalls his country hometown. And yet, as sordid and absurd as Stephen finds Sydney, he also feels a lingering tenderness towards this city that he expresses with shy eloquence – and again, I know just how he feels.
Wood’s staggering, almost intimidating gift for observation left me awestruck. What gives Animal People its soul is Wood’s countless, perfectly-observed snippets of urban life. Overheard conversations, the graffiti on Stephen’s fence, the flyers plastered all over the walls of bus shelters, the slogans on t-shirts…it’s these precious little details that make this novel unique.
Although Animal People is a novel of details and chance encounters, it never feels aimless or disconnected; a testament to Wood’s authorial control. Wood guides her narrative with an understated, graceful touch that ensures every detail, every diversion into Stephen’s memory, every incidental character feels like a natural progression in Stephen’s day. Wood binds the narrative with a sense of gathering momentum, like the crackling of electricity in the air before a storm. As Stephen’s day rolls relentlessly onward, the heat becomes increasingly unbearable, and the novel sizzles and sweats with potential.
While Animal People is devastatingly critical of society, the novel is also filled with moments of absurd humour that will leave you laughing out loud. In particular, I loved the way strangers repeatedly mistake Stephen for a chef because of the black and white chequered pants he wears, which becomes a running joke through the novel.
Other reviewers have frittered away countless words discussing Stephen as an unsympathetic character. I couldn’t disagree more. I find it difficult to imagine how anyone could fail to identify in some small way with Stephen’s plight. After reading Animal People, I can’t resist the feeling that we’ve shared something together, Stephen and I. I adored the endearing way in which Stephen takes Ella, Fiona’s child, into his arms and soothes her when she’s inconsolable with sugar-fuelled (almost animal) rage. And the tenderness with which he recalls his love for Fiona caused my heart to give a little involuntary flop in my chest:
“For the first time in his life he found himself wanting to live up to something – to meet her, to take this beautiful risk – and it made the wave of his need for her crest and break again, unashamed and glorious” (p. 54)
While I’ve extensively discussed the human element of Animal People, I’ve so far refrained from speaking too much about the animals. Animal People is as much an exploration of its animal characters as it is about people – it’s a novel filled with animals, from the majestic creatures at the zoo to Balzac, the over-affectionate German Shepherd belonging to Stephen’s next door neighbours. The animals of Animal People are, by their very nature, silent, and Wood doesn’t presume to speak for them.
Animal People wiggles its way into the space between humans and animals, exploring what the things that separate us and the features we have in common. Wood examines the way we use animals as a mirror for our own desires, and impose on them human expectations and ideals they can’t possibly understand.
This astonishingly witty novel manages to be two things at once: it is both profound, and profoundly moving. Animal People is an intense study of love and fear; of instinct and comfort, that will leave you questioning what it means to be human.