Animal People by Charlotte Wood (review coming soon)

by |August 4, 2011

‘He could not find one single more word to say. I just want to be free. He could not say those words. They had already withered in his mind, turned to dust. He did not even know, he marvelled now, what the hell those words had meant.’

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.

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.
BBGuru: I will be reviewing Animal People shortly. (Pssst… I love it.)

About the Author: 

Charlotte Wood is an Australian fiction writer.

Her fourth novel, Animal People, will be released by Allen & Unwin in October 2011. Her most recent work was to edit Brothers & Sisters, a collection of short stories and non-fiction about siblings by 12 of Australia’s finest writers.

Her last novel, The Children, was described by Australian Book Review as “a graceful and empathetic portrayal of one family seeking to understand itself,” and The Australian described her as “a captivating, questing writer whose work is well worth watching”.

The Children was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Association’s literary fiction book of the year. Charlotte’s previous novel, The Submerged Cathedral, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in its region 2005. Her first book, Pieces of a Girl, was also shortlisted for several prizes.

She writes a cookery blog at She lives in Sydney with her husband Sean and is working on a non-fiction book about food.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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