Jean Bennett is an alcoholic grandmother working as a guide at a wildlife park in northern Australia. She has few loves in life apart from the bottle: her granddaughter Kimberley, her son Lee, who is somewhere “down south”, and Sue, a dingo. She has a difficult relationship with Kimberley’s mother Angela, who is also the park manager. There are disturbing reports of a strange flu, H7N7, spreading from the south. The flu causes people to understand animals, hence its name zoanthropathy, or zooflu. Inevitably it spreads north to the park.
The Animals In That Country is premised on the idea that if we suddenly found ourselves capable of understanding animals, it would be awful. Of course it is: imagine being able to understand the rats in the wall, the mice in lab cages, every fly buzzing past your head. It turns out society doesn’t last long when people can understand their food. As things fall apart, Jean and Sue embark on a journey south, trying to reunite with Jean’s family. Much of the novel unfolds as a trippy apocalyptic road journey, somewhere in the intersection between Mad Max, Shaun Of The Dead, and Homeward Bound.
It’s not just animal sounds that the people awake to, but a whole complicated symphony of smell and body language, which often contradicts itself. The animals “speak” like surrealist poet-aliens. Writing about animals is extremely tricky, and Jean McKay has captured something that seems obvious but is actually very hard to do, that for all our affinities with other life forms, there are impenetrable barriers to meaning between us. But I was surprised, and more than a little disturbed, how easily Jean Mackay led me to begin to understand them.
Initially transfixed, the infected soon discovered their powers are a curse, particularly as they come to understand birds, reptiles, fish and insects. Jean McKay does an excellent job with the horror of her characters’ situation. The animals make little sense – their endless babble is enough to drive anyone mad – and when they do, it is usually to salivate over the walking bags of bones and flesh amongst them. “It’s sweet and eyeball,” says a flock of crows along a desert highway (this book is firmly in the Hitchcock camp when it comes to birds). A crocodile wants to “play”, and whales call people “home”, in what is either a beautiful offer or brutal revenge for thousands of years of whaling. These animals are rude, sex- and death-obsessed beasts. But elsewhere, the animals are a source of genuine pathos, as the pigs freed from a battery farm walk out into the sunlight for the first time. “What is/it,” they ask in dazzled bewilderment. “There’s more,” they cry, “More,/more, more.”
The humans change too. Some lose themselves. Others form “people towns”, or turn to religious cults. Meanwhile the government, realising that society cannot function when people understand what they eat or enslave, hunts for a cure and tries to prevent human-animal contact. While I enjoyed the utter strangeness of the animal communication, it takes a while to get to the juicy bits, and I found the family drama a bit tedious. However Jean is a fantastic character, an older woman with zero fucks to give except about her kin. This is a novel that suggests it would be quite good for us to understand at last what animals are saying, but we should also not wish it upon ourselves.
Gay rating: 2/5 for a bisexual sidekick