Laura Jean McKay’s prickly novel burns with uncomfortable, difficult questions about animals and human nature
What do we reach for in a crisis so ill-defined and uncertain? Do we seek clarity in depressing, speculative work that echoes our present, or instead cocoon ourselves in soapy, comforting stories distinct from our own lives? Our reading habits, at least, are pointing to the former. Sales of Albert Camus’ existential novel The Plague (1947) surged in March. Ling Ma’s Severance, released two years ago, is having a second life thanks to its propheticism. Severance follows a publishing assistant in a forsaken New York, devastated by “Shen Fever”, a contagion that leaves the diseased in a zombified, repetitive fugue state until their bodies fall apart. As Jane Hu recently wrote for The Ringer, re-emerging discussions of the novel have focused on its prescient plot, but have missed Ma’s critique of American imperialism and consumer culture: “If there is any analogy between our current situation and Severance, then, it is this: the pandemic is not so much racially ‘essential’ nor nationally ‘causal’ as it is fundamentally about a global capitalist system that implicates us all.”
Arriving amid an emergency, Laura Jean McKay’s wicked and roving apocalypse novel, The Animals in That Country, may experience a similar misreading. The novel concerns a pandemic, but it also serves as a conduit for McKay to address our ever-fraught yet interdependent relationship with animals.
“The world has been tipped sideways and all the creatures – people, everything – fallen off,” thinks Jean Bennett midway through the novel, as she drives down a desolate highway, where rusted abandoned cars and garbage pile up on the roadside. A bizarre, highly contagious flu has sunk its teeth into the country, leaving the afflicted with eyeballs mottled with a sick pink, and the ability to understand and communicate with animals.
But these transmissions require some translation. Instead of the expected anthropomorphism, the animals speak in a cryptic staccato that reads like cleaved, violent poetry. Their twisted speech tells of terrors, hungers, dependencies, fears, sex and allegiance to their own kind: “It’s a / warm sky / fire. The hot / meat mother”, says Sue, an acid-tongued dingo who serves as Jean’s staunch companion. Early on, some creatures christen the humans around them with royal and paternal titles such as “daddy” and “queen”.
McKay’s novel holds up plenty of queasy mirrors to our current moment: two women wrestle and bite in the empty aisles of a mini-mart for a single tin of food. Misinformation infects Facebook, with combative boomer rhetoric (some coming from Jean herself) congesting any space for thoughtful dialogue. As Jean transverses across many “scabby” towns, those she encounters speak in conspiratorial and biblical tones.
The book begins at an unnamed wildlife park, where Jean Bennett – a rugged, foul-mouthed grandmother and park guide – entertains a group of tourists with cartoony animal voices as she guides them through the enclosures. “Tourists just want to stare into the eye of a four-metre croc, hold a blonde python, then sit on the zoo train with breeze in their faces while I chug them on down to the back of the Park, to where we keep the dingoes,” she says.
As the nation braces for crisis, Jean wrestles with her own. She spends her days obliterated, guzzling down discount booze while having sloppy sex with a colleague. The only real relationship keeping her afloat is with her ultra-curious, animal-obsessed granddaughter, Kimberly. The pair spend sleepovers scrapbooking their own imaginary animal reserve.
But as the outbreak deepens, sparing no one, the novel splinters into a rollicking, freaky road novel, with Jean in search of her peripatetic, infected son, who has disappeared with Kimberly to find communion with whales.
McKay’s savage prose is most thrilling when capturing the never-ending horror show of Australian rot: piss-soaked bars, musty nursing homes, charred and decrepit houses, and a neglected animal sanctuary full of nearly dead creatures. In one town ravaged by the virus, a Persian cat hangs from a basketball hoop by its tail, “bell collar sparking in the sun”. Decay and festering flesh practically waft from the book’s pages. But her blunt sentences can sometimes wield clumsy metaphors that detract from the repulsive rapture McKay is trying to evoke.
The Animals in That Country takes its title from a Margaret Atwood poem of the same name, in which the famed Canadian writer imagines a place where animals are treated with the same dignity and respect as humans; this fantasy is crushed as the poem lurches back to reality in the final stanza. “Their deaths are not elegant. / They have the faces of no-one”, Atwood writes, of a creature unceremoniously run over by a car.
McKay holds a PhD in literary animal studies, and is an animal expert on ABC Listen’s Animal Sound Safari. Her intent, it seems, is similar to Atwood’s, though with a more freakish and eldritch tact. She draws commonality between species as the country descends into a crazed, lawless cesspit, with humans slipping back into their primordial selves, fleshy and feral, fighting for survival while on the brink of madness. Many of the novel’s most absorbing moments arrive out of bodies in peril, both human and non-human: a beach crowded with bloated corpses; bugs wailing while being ripped apart; people walking around with holes drilled deep in their heads, in order to keep animal chatter out.
It’s a shame when all these wild, wretched images don’t click into place. And there are some issues with the novel’s narrative. Subsidiary characters are introduced and then forgotten as the story propels forward; a terrible secret told soapbox-style feels at odds with the book’s disturbing, offbeat mood; and a warped deus ex machina at the novel’s end feels strangely tacked on and underdeveloped.
Yet McKay’s prickly novel burns with uncomfortable, difficult questions about animals and human nature that haunt the reader. A story like this could’ve easily slipped into chummy comradery or simplistic solidarity, and while the relationship between Jean and Sue is heartening, McKay handles the material delicately, knowing better than to equate a heightened understanding with the lessening of cruelty. Instead, The Animals in That Country offers a terrifying, surreal indictment, as well as a warning: carnage awaits if we don’t reassess our relationship with the animals we share our crumbling planet with.
Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic from Melbourne whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. She is also the co-founding editor of music magazine Gusher.
What do we reach for in a crisis so ill-defined and uncertain? Do we seek clarity in depressing, speculative work that echoes our present, or instead cocoon ourselves in soapy, comforting stories distinct from our own lives? Our reading habits, at least, are pointing to the former. Sales of Albert Camus’ existential novel The Plague (1947) surged in March. Ling Ma’s Severance, released two years ago, is having a second life thanks to its propheticism. Severance follows a publishing assistant in a forsaken New York, devastated by “Shen Fever”, a contagion that leaves the diseased in a zombified, repetitive fugue state until their bodies fall apart. As Jane Hu recently wrote for The Ringer, re-emerging discussions of the novel have focused on its prescient plot, but have missed Ma’s critique of American imperialism and consumer culture: “If there is...
Nothing without context. Politics, society, culture.