Book review – Animal People – Charlotte Wood

Welcome to my first review of 2012. The first of many for this year – she says hopefully.

Charlotte Wood’s novel Animal People, follows one day in the life of Stephen, a character who also appears in her novel, The Children. Stephen is a character without ambition – lost in the distance he creates from the rest of the world and its concerns, he observes and pities those around him. He struggles to make sense of ‘animal people’, ‘dog people’ and the visitors to the zoo where he works, as they fawn over the animals. Isolation and desolation wash over Stephen’s life.

Animal People follows Stephen through the day when he plans to leave his girlfriend, Fiona, and her children. He is conflicted about the relationship which he cannot fault. There is nothing inherently wrong with it, but it disturbs Stephen. During the day, several disasters befall him and he is gradually worn down by the events and news he receives. He is also weighed down by the guilt of disappointing his mother and siblings who want him to bring Fiona and the children to a family event. For Stephen, the thought of this family gathering fills him with fear and anger. To me the character of Stephen is caught in a struggle between wanting to be liked and rejecting the norms of the society he lives in. In this novel, Stephen embodies the trope of the flawed character discovering how to live.

One of the most captivating aspects of this book is its descriptions. Fiona’s house is ‘spaciously adult’, Stephen feels ‘shimmers of anxiety’; the details are beautifully observed. When a baby hauls himself up to suck on the bolts sticking out from the bookcase, you can taste the metallic coolness yourself. The oppressive humidity of the walk up to the zoo is palpable. There is an economy of language in this book, and a taut precision to the pace of the story. The details of the place names in the story too, are at a remove, they are real places, but not quite. Almost recognisable, but opaque.

The events of the day build to a showdown at a children’s party. A hot, tired and overwrought affair, complete with complicated adult friendships and hatreds all brought together. Fiona’s ex-husband adds a smug and loathsome air as he belittles Stephen. In the oppositions between the successful and well groomed ex-husband and Stephen, the novel’s central concerns are played out. What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to love someone and care for their happiness?

The integrity of Stephen has been discussed elsewhere, but for me his integrity is second to his compassion for humanity. He wants to like people, and to have them like him. They fall short for him and he falls short for himself. He knows he could do better, get a decent job, not live like a student, grow up and yet when the hard emotional work of loving people is required, Stephen does it better than anyone.

Charlotte Wood has written a book that casts a bright, almost forensic, light on the way we live today, and subtly re-examines what is held dear by us through a thin veneer of civility. It is humorous too, as the absurdity of modern life is cast in sharp relief. The scene of the former Olympic Games volunteer, with her faded lanyard keeping her mobile phone safe, will bring a wry smile to the lips. The girls on the bus behaving like models, the charity collectors hassling at the shopping centre, the appalling work team-bonding games; all familiar but injected with wit and vividly depicted. There is much that could be made of the animals in the novel and what they mean; you should see for yourself.

Highly recommended. Animal People is one my favourite books of recent years.

Charlotte Wood is the author of Animal People, editor of the anthology Brothers & Sisters, and author of novels
The Children, The Submerged Cathedral and Pieces of a Girl. A book of personal essays about cooking, Love & Hunger, will be published in May 2012. Visit her website here – Charlotte Wood - Australia's #1 online bookstore