The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay – 2020

I think anthropomorphism is useful when it enables people, and researchers, to see non-human animals as thinking feeling beings with a sense of their place in the world. I think anthropomorphism is a bad thing when it entails the animals thinking and speaking from the point of view of humans – i.e., with a Disneyesque view of their happy lives. Laura Jean McKay has given us a new form of anthropomorphism; she writes of a dystopia caused by a disease that enables humans to hear what non-human animals might really think, and it’s not pretty.

Jean is an aging, hard drinking, straight-talking guide in an animal park in the Australian north. The park is run by her ex-daughter-in-law, Angela. Jean wants to be a ranger, but she drives Angela crazy with her behaviour – for example going into the dingo enclosure to help Sue the dingo, who thanks her by biting her hand. Jean is kept on at the park mainly to mind Angela’s daughter, Kimberly, allowing Angela some freedom. Angela’s husband – Jean’s son, Lee – and Jean’s husband both took off some time ago. Jean and Kimberly have a very close relationship, they constantly tell each other what the park animals are saying, complete with silly voices, and they covertly plan their own animal sanctuary, named “Come to Kim and Granny’s Animal Place”.

There are fleeting mentions on the news of H7N7, Zooflu, in the south. Angela is worried she might have to close the park – there are activists, farmers, and pet-owners, liberating animals from farms, homes, sanctuaries, and zoos. The disease spreads north, and Angela does close the park. Things start out OK – Jean and Kimberly even take on some ranger duties for a while. And then Kimberly slips up. Jean’s son Lee turns up yearning for the sound of the southern whales. Kimberly and Jean get the Zooflu. Jean’s hand becomes badly infected. Angela becomes very sick. And Lee and Kimberly disappear.

From here the novel takes on the shape of a typical dystopian road story. Jean takes off to find Lee and Kimberly. There are fuel shortages, food shortages, fighting over resources, suspicion of strangers. There are parallels with the Covid pandemic: the rush to find a cure, people resorting to extreme treatments – the reader wonders why there is a shortage of hand drills! – conspiracy theories, people in denial, instant judgements depending on mask-wearing or the lack of. The non-religious thinking Zooflu is the work of God, the religious doubting that.

Yes, it might be a typical dystopian tale, but this one is accompanied by constant non-human commentary. And one of the two main protagonists is Sue the dingo. Jean’s condition allows her, and the reader, to ‘hear’ Sue, who suggests, “The best plan is a plan.” Jean agrees and they travel together. Jean slowly starts to make more sense of Sue’s comments, seeing the unique view of another creature, and, miraculously, so does the reader.

Sue and Jean’s journey takes us to the residential care home where Jean’s mother lives, various small towns where we meet characters in passing, to the farm where Jean’s ex-husband lives, and where we find out large secrets about Jean and her family. We pass horrendous sights and sad sounds. There is an encounter with pigs freed from a truck – I’ll just say I’m glad I don’t eat pork. We visit a small, abandoned animal park full of misery. We hear the confusion and desperation of the domestics, the psychoses of the captive, and the cacophony of the wild.

Jean gets sicker and sicker, her infected hand not helping, we hear more classes of animals: the birds, the insects …, all distinguished by font style. The writing and the structure of the novel relentlessly takes us towards the sea and the whales – who also have an ambiguous but compelling opinion. The title of the novel comes from a Margaret Atwood poem, where animals are distinguished geographically by how humans view them, and how they kill them. McKay’s novel provides another perspective, that of the other-than-human. And it is presented so enthrallingly that when human law intervenes, and we come to the end, we are left breathless and bereft.

The animals in that country won Best Science Fiction Novel in the Aurealis Awards, and recently won the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award. The bond between Jean and Sue will stay with me for a long time – “Even while her body is bursting with messages, there are still things in her head. Dingo things I don’t know about. I’ve got human things she doesn’t know about either, even though I can’t remember any of them right now”. I absolutely loved this book!

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