You have to feel for writers who were producing stories about pandemics before COVID-19 came along. We’re all so sick of living it that the idea of reading it can hardly seem appealing, but the beauty of The Animals in that Country, by Australian writer Laura Jean McKay, is that this really isn’t a story about a pandemic. Not as we have all come to understand it, anyway. Zooflu, or zoanthropathy, has the basic flu symptoms but what it really does is allow people to understand and talk with animals.
Anyone who thinks this is bound to be delightful is in for a shock.
For the most part, it’s destabilising, both in the sheer scale of the new awareness and in the relationships formed—or transformed—by it. Understanding does not come easy, and the new comprehension of animal voices is more about a clear interpretation of body language and smells and sounds, a welter of information that’s just plain overwhelming, mostly because sufferers can’t turn it off. Imagine the rats living in the walls, or in the roof. Imagine the insects in your home. Mosquitoes coming in at night, screaming for blood. Imagine not just being able to talk to ants, but to not be able to turn off the bloody ants in the first place.
It’s an argument for ecological sterility, if ever there was one. I say that flippantly, but there’s violence to my impulses. The noise of a single mosquito at night is something I simply can’t endure. And yeah, I’ve got those wee plug-in things, citronella oil, all of it, but if I’m woken up on a summer night by that endless, grinding whine I am up out of bed and swatting until the little fucker is dead. Is it fair? No. Is it kind? It is not. And the truth is, if that mosquito would just shut up about it I would let it drink my blood and likely not even notice enough to wake. It’s the noise, the endless whining I’m here I’m here I’m here.
The mosquitoes in The Animals in that Country do not say I’m here I’m here I’m here. They say “HAS BLOOD. / THE WALL IS MOVING. / DRINK ‘TIL DEAD. / THE EYES ARE NICE. / AND FULL” (p. 240). As much as I loathe the whine, that intent, flying round my bedroom at night, is invitation for a massacre. Would this confrontation with sentience stay my swatting hand? I am quite certain it would not. Grumpy, sleep-deprived, I would become more murderous than before, and my animal-loving, vegetarian self would likely not even feel bad about it in the morning. And if I did feel bad, it probably wouldn’t be for long.
So. An unpleasant member of an unpleasant species, and it’s easy to glamorise the animal world, to think of it as pure and innocent, as if chimps don’t murder and dolphins don’t rape. In McKay’s disease-ridden Australia, the unpleasant species has its day, and that unpleasant species is legion. Who wants to run out of petrol in the middle of rural Australia, and hear the crows watching from the powerlines: “We can’t eat / it yet” they mourn, waiting (p. 168), and the main character is horrified to realise that the crows are monitoring her for a meal. I am less horrified. They are crows, after all. I’m more interested, to be honest, in the reference to the main character as an “it.” This is something that McKay consistently presents throughout the book—animals referring to humans as “it,” as if humans lack the dignity of gender. This, of course, is what we do to animals all the time, so it’s mildly confronting to see that lack of courtesy reflected, but then there’s little here to indicate that humans deserve any courtesy at all.
Human response to animals, in this novel, is a diverse mix of instability and thwarted love, and on the one hand it’s depressingly sad, sad enough to verge on tragic, but on the other it’s also very funny, because the incomprehension is just so determined. Angela, the head of a wildlife park, gets into an enclosure with a crocodile, and you can see the train wreck coming, all scaled and toothy and hungry as it is, but Angela—who has consistently told her staff not to anthropomorphise the animals in their care—has lost all common sense. There’s a crocodile! She can talk to it! Bernie the crocodile, clearly, thinks that all his Christmases have come at once. It takes Angela a little longer to cotton on.
She’s down on her hands and knees, her ear to the pond and she’s grinning, grinning, then she stops. Frowns. Jerks back, dripping. I see something in her eyes. Not fear. Recognition. She didn’t know something—now she knows, and it’s not good. (p. 98)
Bernie has to be killed before Angela can be retrieved from his jaws, and all she can say is “He was talking [...] He said he want to play with me. Play with me.” (p. 99)
Well, no shit, Angela, I said, cackling my head off because it is funny, really: the idea that humans are such astonishing conversationalists that the apex predator of the reptile world—a world not known for its sweet and empathic nature—is going to overthrow hundreds of millions of years of evolution and... do what, exactly? Swap a death roll for hide-and-seek? Bernie has spent his time at the wildlife park mostly eating dead chickens, apparently, so you can hardly blame him for wanting a more satisfying dining experience. I imagine there’s not a lot of excitement in death-rolling a chicken.
There’s this idea underlining human reaction to animals in the novel—an idea that McKay, I think, clearly does not subscribe to herself, given how much time she spends puncturing it. This idea is that human presence will change animal behaviour, that communicating with animals will lead to understanding them, and I can see the genesis of it. It’s true that interaction with animals has caused the domestication of some of them, and it’s true that language is primarily manipulative, a way to create realities, and as a species we are particularly good at that. Because our world is so anthropocentric, however, we tend to think that the realities we allow language to create are the only possible realities. And really, that’s not true even within the species, let alone when millions of other species have their own realities to cope with. Bernie may be a little more clear-eyed than the rest of the park animals, but he is not the only animal whose reality there differs from the reality of their human keepers. The mammals, in particular, are constantly terrified... and that terror is reserved for the keepers. Those keepers, conservationists by training and inclination, appear to genuinely care for their charges. They want them to be safe and happy, and the knowledge that, for instance, the quolls believe the keepers will hurt them is devastating.
It’s what they all think [...] That we’re predators. That every time we come near them we’re trying to eat them. I’m trying to tell them we’re safe, but they don’t get it. Or I don’t get it. (pp. 72–73)
The thing is, the quolls aren’t wrong. Oh, they’re wrong on an individual level—their keepers aren’t trying to eat them, specifically, but those same keepers are predators all the same. (Bernie gets eaten by them. Got to do something with that carcass.) And, amidst the wider population, other consumptions are backing up the quolls’ certain beliefs. Pigs in a truck, being taken to the slaughterhouse, causing an argument between their owners. “Money didn’t talk before” (p. 126). The pigs, calling from the truck, being heard in the cab. “Can hear that hello-ing all the way up in the bloody cabin. Still got a five-hour drive ahead. That’s good money there” (p. 126). The pigs are let loose to wander, but they are the lucky ones. Dogs, cats, other pets... when Jean, the protagonist, reaches the city she finds them killed off, and being used for food. There’s a little dog, “bleeding out on the beige carpet. The door to the kitchen is open. Matthew the soup cook leans on the jamb, then turns back. A fluffy tail on a chopping block. The steaming pots. Pain like a stab to my guts—he stirs a soup very much like the one he was serving up in the park” (p. 226).
I’d kill mosquitoes, even if they talked. But a cat? A little fluffy kitty-cat, or a dog? I would like to think not, but that is a violence shaded by degree and not principle, I suppose. Is a mosquito really worth less than Fluffy? But Fluffy, potentially, is off her rocker, domestication and instinct warring against each other in a way that has people turning against their pets, abandoning them, mourning them. Feeding on them, so that previously felt boundaries can be re-established, the primacy of human over nonhuman. What else is there to do when people go to talk to the whales and are convinced to drown themselves thereby? Some people drill holes in their heads, re-establish distance and incomprehension via trepanation. Some people go out on boats to drive the whales away. (How long, I wonder, before whale meat’s back on the menu?)
We’ve built an entire culture on not understanding animals. Or on a rigidly limited understanding, on what we’d like to believe. Thwarted love, I called it, and three-quarters of this review has dealt with the transformation of culture rather than of the individual, so it may do well to end on character rather than culture. Much of this book is a road trip, undertaken by Jean, one of the wildlife park guides, and Sue, one of the dingoes at that park. They’re off to retrieve Jean’s granddaughter Kim from her no-hoper dad, who Sue (accurately and amusingly) refers to as “Never There.” Jean, admittedly, is something of a no-hoper herself. Coarse, alcoholic, barely tolerated at her job, and then out of pity. She doesn’t do well in human society, not really, and it’s hardly surprising that her closest relationship with another adult is with an adult dingo.
As the trip ends, with death and the unearthing of family secrets, Jean becomes more and more incompetent in the world. She only survives because Sue takes her in hand (in paw), in much the same way as she would a disappointing dingo in her own pack. “Get up, Bad / Dog. / Sit / up. Now. / I don’t. She bites my ear so hard I feel for blood. / Get up, Little / Bitch” (p. 232). It’s the clearest Sue has been throughout the book, as for most of the time she’s been verging on incomprehensible. The more time Jean spends with her, though (and by extension the more time that we, the readers, spend with her) the more understandable she becomes.
Not pleasant. But understandable. The thing about comprehension, though, is that it’s never guaranteed to last, because comprehension, when it comes down to it, is not simply a matter of ability, bestowed upon one by a vague disease that turns reality into fable. Comprehension is a choice, and that choice has to be made again and again. It’s sustained willingness to understand, to make the same exhausting and often fruitless effort forever. And Jean does, until she doesn’t.
Whether that final choice is failure or self-preservation, I don’t know. I suspect I am not meant to. But that is what ambiguous endings are for, perhaps. To be an invitation, and to have that invitation be enough.