I loved Animal People. I am now trying to write a review. I've read it twice. And may read it again. It is so difficult to review a book which has so much to offer with each new read. It is as though Charlotte Wood had written an encyclopaedic multi volume chronicle of our times and then had whittled it down to its essentials, before crushing the remnants into a paste, and pressing this essence into an engaging narrative - John Purcell, The Booktopia Book Guru.
Charlotte has answered our Ten Terrifying Questions - read them here
A sharply observed, 24-hour urban love story that follows Stephen Connolly – a character from the bestselling novel The Children – through one of the worst days of his life. The day he has decided to dump his girlfriend.
On a stiflingly hot December day, Stephen has decided it’s time to break up with his girlfriend Fiona. He’s 39, aimless and unfulfilled, he’s without a clue working out how to make his life better. All he has are his instincts – and unfortunately they might just be his downfall . . .
As he makes his way through the pitiless city and the hours of a single day, Stephen must fend off his demanding family, endure another shift of his dead-end job at the zoo (including an excruciating teambuilding event), face up to Fiona’s aggressive ex-husband and the hysteria of a children’s birthday party that goes terribly wrong. As an ordinary day develops into an existential crisis, Stephen begins to understand – perhaps too late – that love is not a trap, and only he can free himself.
Hilarious, tender and heartbreaking, Animal People is a portrait of urban life, a meditation on the conflicted nature of human-animal relationships, and a masterpiece of storytelling.
Animal People invites readers to question the way we think about animals – what makes an ‘animal person’? What value do we, as a society, place on the lives of creatures? Do we brutalise our pets even as we love them? What’s wrong with anthropomorphism anyway? Filled with challenging ideas and shocks of recognition and revelation, Animal People shows a writer of great depth and compassion at work.
About the Author
Charlotte Wood’s third novel The Children (2007) sold over 10,000 copies in trade paperback. This and her previous novels, The Submerged Cathedral (2004) and Pieces of a Girl (1999) were acclaimed by reviewers and award judges, with shortlistings for the Miles Franklin Award, the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Australian Book Industry Awards and other prizes. Wood also edited the highly praised anthology Brothers & Sisters (2009). She lives in Sydney with her husband. Visit www.charlottewood.com.au
CHARLOTTE WOOD ON HOW ANIMAL PEOPLE ORIGINATED
I wrote Animal People as both a reaction against and continuation of my last novel. I started out wanting – this is going to sound odd, but I wanted to write a romantic comedy. Without being too extravagant about it, for me writing The Children involved a lot of hard thinking about suffering – what it means to witness the suffering of strangers, on the television news and so on, what our moral obligations are in relation to that. As it turns out, this new book ended up entering into a similar question in a different area, but at first I wanted to do something light. I also wanted to try writing something funny, because I’d never really risked doing comic writing. And I wanted to keep exploring the character of Stephen, because I felt I hadn’t quite finished with him in the previous book – unlike the other characters, my understanding of him remained unresolved at the end of that book. I wanted to understand him more.
I decided (very early) on the single-day timeframe as a kind of structural challenge, and it went from there. Only after writing it for a couple of years did I start to see the larger possibilities of the animal-human relationships, and themes of captivity and freedom which arose from the zoo setting for part of the book. I had thought I simply plucked that setting out of the air (an old boyfriend of mine once worked as a sandwich hand at the zoo, and I thought it had comic potential) but in fact it was the old subconscious doing its work, laying down some nice subterranean layers of meaning for the larger world of the novel.
So I soon realised that I didn’t simply want to write a comic novel, because once you start writing a portrait of a city and examining these relationships between humans and animals, you start to see just how poignant much of this material is. But I think just as beautiful writing somehow can alleviate the harshness of dark material, a sense of comic timing, and a sense of absurdity, allow one as a writer to really delve into the tender and difficult material without leaving the reader marooned in bleakness. I like to think the comedy – if it’s done sharply enough and compassionately and truthfully enough – might help ease the way through some of the more challenging intellectual and emotional terrain.
PRAISE FOR THE CHILDREN
‘The Children is Wood’s best work yet. Despite Mandy’s contempt for the ordinary, Wood makes the most ordinary moments glow: her sensitivity to visual details cuts to the quick. Little escapes her, and the result is a graceful and emphatic portrayal of one family seeking to understand itself.’ Stephanie Bishop, Australian Book Review
‘The central challenge of the novel became the attempt to probe the obscenity of the regular media deliverance of disaster into our own homes, to make sense of the horror to which we are so randomly exposed . . . Wood puts an unusually compassionate, hopeful spin on the media’s sensationalist practices. The Children confirms her as a captivating, questing writer whose work is well worth watching.’ Stella Clarke, The Weekend Australian
‘The Children is beautifully and tightly shaped . . . Wood, whose previous novel, The Submerged Cathedral, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, has the ability to evoke matters of life and death without straining for effect. Her prose is convincing and her images precise’ Dorothy Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald
‘Charlotte Wood’s new novel . . . perceptively and poignantly probes the complicated love that binds families . . . One rereads the novel not for its shock value but for its nuances, its deep questions and its lovely supple prose. For this is a vibrant, intelligent, utterly compelling work, achingly real and seductively woven with a restrained consonance of connected images that build through the novel to a final symbolic release.’ Katharine England, The Adelaide Advertiser
‘This is a thoughtful, incisive and eminently readable book.’ The Canberra Times
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Comments about Animal People:
I read Charlotte Wood's novel Animal People twice. I think it's one of the best contemporary novels I have read. But I cannot review it. I tried a number of times and failed each time. I only recently realised why this is. I don't want to review Animal People. I want to recommend it.
The trouble is, I can't recommend it to just anybody.
Sure, some part of me wants to help encourage complacent book club readers the world over to read it. I would like to think it would do them good (and Charlotte Wood's bank balance good). But, if the truth be told, I don't want them to.
If they read it they may want to discuss it, as few people these days can understand a book without first discussing it with their peers. They may take the central character of Animal People, Stephen, and compare him with people they know. They may debate whether he is a sympathetic character or not. They may ask what the significance of the dog might be, what the title means, what the ending means. I don't want them to do any of these things. I want them to wander away from the safety of the group. I want them to let their guard down. I want them to be smacked in the face by Animal People. If they're not willing to take a few hits, I don't think they deserve to read Animal People.
So who can I recommend it to?
I felt I had been dismantled, cleaned and reassembled by the novel. The novel did not change me. It reintroduced me to the important parts that make up who I am.
And this is why I have had such difficulty writing about Animal People.
To write a review is to accept that this book is like the last book I reviewed. That Charlotte Wood's reason for writing is much like any other novelist's reason for writing – to tell a story. Well I can't do that. I feel that Charlotte Wood is an artist, a thinker, an observer, a chronicler, a radical whose work has great value above and beyond the standardised judgements of our day. Wood is writing literature of the kind which hopes to hit upon universal truths using only the simplest and most delicate tools.
Animal People is not a long novel. It follows one man as he makes his way through a single day. But even so, within these pages Wood examines some of the loudest issues of our time – terrorism, materialism, social inequality, social welfare, animal cruelty, isolation – and the quietest – love, despair, commitment, loneliness, honesty. In brief, her little novel stalks the greatest of subjects, the human condition. How we live, how we love and how we communicate. And she does so with prose that is spare, considered, beautiful and graceful.
After I finished the novel I opened it again and read the first line – and was drawn right back in again. I might even have read it a third time had it not occurred to me to read The Children, an earlier novel by Wood, where Stephen the main character, makes his first appearance.
I don't read many novels twice, but there was something extremely attractive to me about Stephen and his day. Integrity is attractive. It is something that requires effort to gain and, in this shoddy world, almost superhuman strength to retain. And it is rare. Stephen, has integrity.
But by every one of today's standards, Stephen is a failure. He is not married, he hasn't any kids of his own, owns nothing, he is bright but has no career, no ambition. When we first meet him he's as naked as the day he was born. It is my contention that he is in the predicament we find him in because he has integrity. He just wants to live an authentic life. And all paths forward seem paved with falsehoods.
And this is Stephen's problem. How is he to proceed through life if he can't express himself honestly, truly and simply? In the first few pages we are told he intends to break up with girlfriend, Fiona, that evening. But he can't really say why. It is just something he feels he must do. The very idea of it oppresses him. He cannot fault his girlfriend or their relationship. And throughout the passage of his day Wood gives us glimpses of their relationship together in mini-flashbacks. But something has changed. At some point in the preceding days or weeks there has been a violent collision of ideas in Stephen's head and he can't seem to work out which of the ideas should have been given right of way.
Animal People walks us into the very heart of Stephen's dilemma. To love or not to love. At times he seems ready to love, and Wood recounts his more intimate thoughts about Fiona beautifully – 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.
And yet, in the next moment, when life and love seems to require something he does not think he can give, Stephen turns from Fiona in his mind and determines not to make what he now thinks is a great mistake.
These fluctuations between doubt and belief, as Stephen moves inexorably towards Fiona, give the novel a tension which held me tight through two reads.
Animal People is certainly critical of the way many of us live and love, it was certainly critical of the way I live, but unlike many novels which find fault, this novel offers real and quite beautiful remedies, ones which I have already embraced.
Well, you've read this far. I think we've answered my earlier question. Who can I recommend Animal People to? The answer is – You.
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 1st October 2011
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Dimensions (cm): 20.8 x 15.2 x 2.1
Weight (kg): 0.33
Edition Number: 1