2011 – animal people ~ charlotte wood

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…


Animal People

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.

Rating: ★★★★★


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

26 thoughts on “2011 – animal people ~ charlotte wood”

  1. Amazing and beautiful review Michelle! I’ve been hearing so many wonderful things about this book and reading this has just increased my desire to read it. You have an incredible way with words, I always enjoy your reviews.

    1. Just jump in! I haven’t read The Children, and although I did get a little confused towards the end about who was related to who, it didn’t stop me from enjoying Animal People. Needless to say, I’ll be reading The Children before the end of this year. Thanks for visiting, Jo!

  2. No, No, please read The Children first. My daughter recommended it – I read it – thought it was just the most wonderful read. Stephen is ‘explained’
    so well, and one of his sisters, Mandy, a world weary foreign correspondent working in war zones is described exactly how I think people working in these situations would be – her relationship with Stephen – well, i recommend you read it.
    I have just come across your review page… I like your perspective very much,
    and your writing.

    1. Ooh, interesting! I normally hate reading books out of order, but I’d heard somewhere (not sure where) that reading Animal People first wouldn’t make any difference. Thanks for commenting, Sue! I’ll read The Children soon and report back!

  3. Hi Michelle – what a wonderful review.

    I left reading anything about Animal People until I’d read it – knowing, after having loved The Children, that I would read it some time this year for the AWW challenge. So it has taken me till now when I’m arching the AWW reviews to find your piece.

    You capture the beautiful, grace, wit and style of this novel – and I agree with you: Stephen is far from being unsympathetic. I’m looking forward to reading Wood’s other novels, particularly The Submerged Cathedral, which I’ve heard quite a bit about.

    Thanks for rising to the challenge of expressing what it was about this book that touched you – I know how difficult that can be, as I had the same feelings about Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy and Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts – and others that I’ve read and haven’t reviewed.

    1. Hi Elizabeth. I think one of the things that makes a novel great is the way it continues to affect you months – even years – after you first read it. And I still think about Animal People – all the time. I see Stephens all over Sydney; I sat next to a man wearing chef’s pants on the train the other day.

      I’m yet to read The Children. For some reason, I don’t want to read all of Wood’s work at once – I want something to save for later, if that makes sense.

      I have only heard good things about Dog Boy and Sea Hearts! I think I’ll push them further up my to be read pile. Which reminds me: I have a backlog of AWW books to read and posts to write.

      Thanks for commenting Elizabeth!

  4. Lovely review, I just hated Stephen’s cowardice. I really liked her writing but I found him painful. I thought her book reminded me of Adelaide and parts of Melbourne, didn’t feel it was set in Sydney at all (I’m Sydney born and bred). I love your blog. So many books, so little time to read

    1. I think I feel for Stephen so much because I used to be a bit of a Stephen myself. And, like Stephen, I’m from the country too so I totally understand the way his movement across Sydney feels like such a big, alien thing to him; his constant feeling of being overwhelmed by the city. Stephen’s one of those characters I just get.

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my blog, Lou! Way, way too many books to read…. x

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