This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 241
The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, 2020), 280pp, $29.99
‘Do we want to know what pigs on the way to slaughter are thinking?’ asked Australian author Sophie Cunningham at the 31 March 2020 virtual launch of Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country. ‘No, we don’t,’ Cunningham answered. But that is what we get in McKay’s novel. Battery-farmed pigs are released from a truck on a five-hour-plus trip to the slaughterhouse––this is the Australian outback––because their constant hello-ing has unravelled the farmers in the cab. One pig asks, ‘Is it / good. What is / it.’ It’s grass and creeks. We discover that the pigs are not merely fearful; rather, they feel something more terrible and familiar:
The ones that can walk stretch their legs, for,
I stand at the top of the truck ramp watching them break into a group trot toward the next paddock. Skin rippling. Hooves carolling. Know that heart-in-your-mouth run. Know exactly what ‘more’ is … These pigs are half dead, they’re stumbling around, blind, mad, and fucking hopeful.
McKay’s debut novel upsets not only the conventional power dynamic between people and animals but also the expectations of readers. It is described on its back cover as being about a pandemic, the chief symptom of which is the ability to understand the language of animals. Talking animals! It sounds too corny, but it isn’t, because the ‘language’ is not only verbal but includes sounds, scents and body language––cues from the animal world to which people are generally oblivious.
Hearing the ‘voices’ of animals sends the human world into chaos. Some people kill or release their pets, some try home lobotomy so they cannot hear them, others swim out to join the whales and drown. Still others relinquish their status as dominators. It is this change in power structure that I take as the central theme of the novel. The pandemic plot is remarkable for its uncanny prescience, including scenarios that once seemed futuristic and are now part of what we call the ‘new normal’. Yet it is purely the vehicle to achieve this extraordinary circumstance: human comprehension of the animal world from which flows the novel’s brilliance.
In 2021, with ecology at the forefront of much of our thinking, it seems right that a novel about animals talking should foreground their agency, their distinct differences from people and their physical drives. In The Animals in that Country––winner of the $100,000 2021 Victorian Prize for Literature––insects say: ‘HAS BLOOD’ and ‘DRINK ’TIL DEAD. / THE EYES ARE NICE. / AND FULL.’ To craft these monologues, McKay adopts a kind of poetic shorthand, employing bold type and line breaks to distinguish between the ‘language’ of animals and that of people. She combines the animals’ verbal thoughts with an awareness of their body language. Sue the dingo is ‘speaking in odours, echoes, noises with random meanings popping out of them. A twitching rear paw. Creaking sounds of welcome in her throat.’ At first the words are unintelligible––‘It’ll call me and / I’d like / to get a drink of / it.’ But soon this sensory and verbal communication evokes another realm, which some humans come to value.
Central to the success of the plotline is the narrator, Jean, an ‘ageing rev-head’, alcoholic grandmother, wildlife park guide and wannabe ranger. Her repellent yet attractive character is a credible conveyor of the wild rides McKay takes us on. Through crafted writing, Jean’s sometimes repugnant actions are countered by dry humour and a tender heart, as in the following excerpt in which she describes her wayward son:
When you’ve birthed someone, you recognise them in any light. He has a way of standing: wonky, but graceful as a dancer … Barefoot down the warm road I go, unable to keep the smile off my face, even though I know it’s best not to encourage him. Because if you give him an inch. My baby. My boy. My little man. Stranger with my skin standing on the other side of the fence … He’s been on the heroin by the sounds of it … That voice twists my guts, wrings them dry, but it doesn’t make any difference to know.
Jean’s language portrays the world with unadorned candour—drinking, spewing, pissing, fucking—and dexterous metaphor: ‘She gives me a look you might offer a kicked dog’; ‘My head like a burrow––I’ve got to dig myself out of.’ Its elemental earthiness permits McKay to intertwine human and animal worlds without straining a reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The wildlife park where Jean works is owned by Ange, the mother of Jean’s granddaughter, six-year-old Kimberley, who is abducted by her father Lee and taken to the coast to swim with whales. The fast-paced road-chase chronicling Jean’s search for her granddaughter drives the plot forward at page-turning speed. It begins about a third of the way into the novel, by which time all the central human characters are infected with ‘zooflu’, the viral pandemic. The primary symptom is described as something akin to an acid trip in which enhanced visual, aural and olfactory senses are tuned to the animal world.
Accompanying Jean on the drive south is Sue, a dingo ‘camp-mutt-kelpie cross’ that Jean found as a pup and reckons she has a special relationship with. Eva Hornung’s novel Dog Boy (2009) imagines what happens when dogs accept a boy into their pack. McKay imagines what happens when a person accepts a dingo into her life, not as subservient pet but as wild dog with animal agency. In a relationship that flips the power dynamic between human and animal, Sue becomes companion, comforter, guide.
The novel begins with vivid descriptions of Jean’s life and character, including her habit of amusing visitors to the park by imagining what the dingoes are saying, thus setting up a contrast between Jean’s initial vision and the animal language revealed later. When Sue’s foot is stuck in a fence, Jean tugs at the wire to release her. A tourist wants to know what the dingo said:
The whole lot of them is listening, so I get the mic out. Make my voice high and feathery, like a wild dog tail. ‘She said, “Jeanine-girl: you’re my best friend.”’
They love that.
Ange scolds Jean for ‘doing the voices’ because ‘people who anthropomorphise tend not to read cues, and people who don’t read cues are dangerous’. But when the infected Jean comprehends the dingo’s thoughts, the results reveal that anthropomorphising animals is not only dangerous but represents a hierarchy of dominance.
McKay ingeniously builds suspense by showing the effects such knowledge has on people, before disclosing what the animals are saying. A man talking to his dog piques Kimberley’s curiosity:
‘I want to talk to a dog,’ Kim tells him.
The man straps his mask back on. ‘No you don’t. My hunting bitch was a tough, mean, fighting machine dog that didn’t take shit from nothing. But what she had to say once I knew what it was she was saying––’
‘What’d she say?’ Me and Kim at the same time.
By then, I was asking the same question. But it is some time before it is answered. Meanwhile, Jean observes two infected park rangers in the food store where small mammals are bred to feed predators:
Casey and Liu are out the back, gaping in slack-jawed wonder at the series of bedraggled cages on death row … The look on Casey’s face like the rapture you see on those late night happy-clappy God-botherer shows.
Freshly infected Jean does not immediately comprehend her new sensory awareness. It triggers as she observes mice in the food store:
Gas rising, not from the pipes, but from their bodies. Not squeaking, screaming. They scream bloody murder, the death of everyone, death in cages and death in the walls …
… Mice don’t talk like that. Mice talk about eating and fucking.
McKay’s descriptions of animal signs that were previously undetectable are breathtakingly proficient:
Round a corner, a bulk of scent nearly knocks me flat. Personal. Someone you don’t know waving their rude bits around, then it’s gone … all around me, trails of glowing messages have been laid out overnight. In stench, in calls, in piss, in tracks, in blood, in shit, in sex, in bodies. A big boy wallaroo has rubbed his scent, slick as oil, over the grass at the road edge. It’s like running alongside a urinal in a pub.
Jean stuffs flowers in her ears to quieten the animals’ voices. Nevertheless, she hears Sue. And now McKay describes what it is like to converse with the nonhuman:
Just as I skirt around a mossy stump, a voice calls to me like a childhood song:
It rips through my itchy earplugs. I know it. Not Kimberley or Lee or the little things in the tree, but someone so familiar that I skip, God help me, and start toward it.
A whiff of
Slowly tug the flowers out of my ears and squint through the trees. A fly to my left. The stench of the forest, private as an armpit. Sweat pooling cold between my boobs. My special someone calls again.
‘Ange?’ Angela won’t be calling anyone Queen. It’s someone else in the bush. I see caramel. Meet with a face so familiar it could be mine. Takes a moment for me to understand it’s not human.
It is hardly surprising that McKay was the animal expert presenter on the ABC Listen’s Animal Sound Safari and that her doctoral thesis focuses on literary animal studies. Born in Victoria, she lectures in creative writing at Massey University. Her first book, Holiday in Cambodia (2013), is a collection of short stories. The Animals in that Country takes its title from Margaret Atwood’s 1968 poem, which contrasts an imagined world where animals are valued with the modern world where they are not.
As McKay reported at the WORD Christchurch Festival last October, her book is like two novels sandwiched together: one about an outback road-chase involving a hard-living, middle-aged woman, the other a dystopian tale of a pandemic, the main symptom of which causes societal collapse. What is admirable is how the excitement of the first and the significance of the second intertwine so that both become part of a whole, where the philosophical questions raised by the power shift between animals and humans are present without overburdening the action of the chase.
Darkly funny, this engrossing novel has a surprisingly affecting end.
JANET NEWMAN won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition, and the 2017 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems. She was a runner-up in the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Award. Her first poetry collection, Unseasoned Campaigner, was published by Otago University Press in 2021.