The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay
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.