The Animals in That Country

Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in That Country
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The Animals in That Country

Laura Jean McKay

Finalist for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2020

Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, and allergic to bullshit, Jean is not your usual grandma. She’s never been good at getting on with other humans, apart from her beloved granddaughter, Kimberly. Instead, she surrounds herself with animals, working as a guide in an outback wildlife park. And although Jean talks to all her charges, she has a particular soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.

As disturbing news arrives of a pandemic sweeping the country, Jean realises this is no ordinary flu: its chief symptom is that its victims begin to understand the language of animals - first mammals, then birds and insects, too. As the flu progresses, the unstoppable voices become overwhelming, and many people begin to lose their minds, including Jean’s infected son, Lee. When he takes off with Kimberly, heading south, Jean feels the pull to follow her kin.

Setting off on their trail, with Sue the dingo riding shotgun, they find themselves in a stark, strange world in which the animal apocalypse has only further isolated people from other species. Bold, exhilarating, and wholly original, The Animals in That Country asks what would happen, for better or worse, if we finally understood what animals were saying.     

Review

The Animals in That Country is a standout debut novel of 2020. It is the second work of fiction from Laura Jean McKay, following her acclaimed short-story collection, Holiday in Cambodia (2013). Original, hugely entertaining and superbly crafted, this is one heck of a road-trip novel, whose timing and insights into human behaviour in a crisis could not be more prescient.

In an Australia in the grip of a pandemic, we meet Jean Bennett, a unique character in recent reading memory. Working as a guide at an animal sanctuary in the outback, Jean is rough and brassy, lives hard, and is full of love for life and family. As the ‘zooflu’ from down south edges ever closer to home, it becomes clear that its major symptom is the ability for infected humans to understand animals. Imagine that for a moment if you can: hearing your cat one-on-one might be okay, but what about the full cacophony of the animal kingdom all at once and all the time? Of course, people start to lose their minds. In the midst of the growing chaos, Jean’s granddaughter is taken away by her infected father, who is on a mission to find the meaning of life, and so Jean has to get on the road to go after them, taking Sue – her best friend who also happens to be a dingo – with her. What follows is an incredibly tense and masterfully paced adventure, which is as poetic as it is surprising.

The heart of McKay’s vision is to explore the potential of human–nonhuman communication, but she does not offer up a reality of simple or benign coexistence were we to understand each other. Her animals are neither benevolent nor prophetic (as talking animals sometimes appear in fiction); their languages do not make them human-like. In this way, McKay asks uncomfortable and impossible questions about how we are to live together as animals in this country, especially when that country is under increasing environmental, ideological, and social pressure. This book is mind-bending in the best possible ways, and by quirk of fate, will now also be read as a superb critique of our preparedness for existential emergencies, like those we have been facing in recent months.


Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.

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