This nominee for the Arthur C. Clarke Award should not be confused with Margaret Atwood’s poem of the same name. There is a link here. The author, Laura Jean McKay references Atwood’s work in the introduction and as you read this book you definitely feel a link between the two works.
The Animals in that Country is very much a novel for 2020/2021. It is based around a global pandemic of a viral flu that allows humans to understand the subtle communication of animals be that smell or posture. In essence this could be said to be a modern day Dr Dolittle however there the comparison ends.
The novel follows Jean a grandmother working for her daughter in law as a tour guide in a wildlife park in Australia. Jean is not an endearing character, she is alcoholic, alone and seemingly unable to control her own life. The only light in her life is her granddaughter.
During the height of the pandemic Jean is forced to undertake a journey to rescue her granddaughter from her son who takes her south. The only help Jean can rely on is from one of the parks dingos.
The story as a whole is unrelentingly bleak, only one other beats it and that is Cormac Murphys The Road. None of the characters although realistic in many ways are unsympathetic. There are no good guys this novel, perhaps that was McKay’s intention but it makes for a difficult read.
The concept of being able to understand animals is a fascinating one and as an ecologist and wildlife lover very tempting. McKay’s approach to this is, for me, not well thought out. I like the idea that they do not talk, so to speak more that they are understood, however humans lack the olfactory capabilities to detect the subtle odours of animals. Of course that’s just me being picky but I do feel that this ability is poorly handled. The author does make great effort not to anthropomorphise the animals too much and works to explain the alieness of their world and ours. The concepts of this novel are good but the characterisations and bleakness take away from what could have been a more thought provoking read, a much more nuanced and deeper take between the relationship between animals and humans. Its an opportunity sorely missed.
To conclude then, The Animals of that Country is an interesting read but not one I found enjoyable. Some might see it as a narrative on modern life but despite its well crafted prose it is too depressing to be a great read.