Shortlisted for all sorts of excellent awards, most notably the Miles Franklin for The Submerged Cathedral, Australian writer and editor Charlotte Wood also blogs on ‘food, writing and reading’ at How to shuck an oyster. Animal People is her latest novel.
I’ll confess it. I’m an animal person. Vegetarian. More likely to pat your dog than coo over your baby and/or Kindle. Secretly, I’ll wish I had the guts to free your bird (deterred by the knowledge that it would likely be a brief flight to certain death). I have dogs, cats and a Buddha statue sits on the grave of my old dog who died, at 17, in March (on my birthday) and, yes, I sometimes light a candle. Still.
But no one likes an aging German shepherd’s nose to prod where it doesn’t belong. And living with dogs myself, I can’t abide the thought of their poo-eating tongues slurping wilfully at my face, either. Which is undoubtedly where my sympathy with Wood’s flawed and hapless protagonist, Stephen, begins. And it is certainly through the agency of dog that it blossoms into an empathy so profound that when I finished the novel, I sobbed into my pillow with the raw, impossible vulnerability that is ‘being human’.
The novel unfolds through the events of a single day and Wood is an acute observer of the extraordinariness of the ordinary. She is marvellous at writing a concrete detail in such a way that each examined moment of the novel is a written-word experience of dramatist Michael Chekhov’s Four Brothers – form, ease, beauty and a sense of the whole. Incidental characters come to life:
[T]he small, shifty man who wore a woollen beanie no matter the weather, and walked as if climbing over some eternally reappearing obstacle.
Through the window Stephen saw the fairy smoking a cigarette in the garden, her meaty arms folded. She blew the smoke downwards over the costume’s wisps and petals into her great cleavage.
Though filtered through Stephen’s point of view, we are nevertheless given hugely informative glimpses of the major players – Fiona and her family, Stephen’s mother, his sister, the children. The portrayal of Ella at the birthday party, for example, is one of heartrending exactitude and understanding.
Wood’s mastery of detail opens up the novel’s sense of the whole in a very real way. One day offers an insight not only into Stephen’s whole life but into ‘society’, into the weaving of personal and social, the bubble of internal experience and its fragility – the way it bumps up against (or crashes into) the hard edges of others (or our perception of others) and, sometimes, finds sanctuary, protected by the embracing places that are compassion and love.
Wood gives us a clear picture of the (irrational?) fears and petty incomprehensions, prejudices and anxieties that drive Stephen from moment to moment during the chaos of a truly shitty day, but Stephen’s overarching pathology is not explained: his compulsion to destroy what is good in his life is mysterious, as is his lovely girlfriend Fiona’s love of him.
The fairy simply stood in the hallway, looking down at him with folded arms, shaking her head. ‘You’re completely insane,’ she said, and then she stepped over him to follow the others into the kitchen.
Stephen is both compassionate and selfish, a complex and dubious man (and the fairy’s assessment is quite possibly true). Like her family, like Stephen himself, I wondered if Fiona would be better off without him. But it’s Stephen’s story to tell and he doesn’t know what Fiona sees in him either. Stephen doesn’t understand his own motivations any more than he knows or understands the motivations of animal people.
He was not an animal person in the same way he was not a musical person, or an intellectual person. One was born to these things, like the colour of one’s eyes, or the length of one’s legs. Not to be musical or intellectual was unremarkable and provoked no suspicion. But not to be an animal person somehow meant he wasn’t fully human.
Stephen appears as a character in Wood’s earlier novel, The Children, which I haven’t read. Yet. After reading Animal People, I want to buy it and read it. Visit Wood’s website for further reviews of Animal People or just get down to Readings and get yourself a copy.
Also at Overland: Roselina Press interviews Charlotte Wood.