Daily Archives: April 13, 2012

‘Animal People’ by Charlotte Wood

2011,  262 p.

There must be something about the challenge of writing a book set completely within one day, because many writers seem to have done it: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf (and in homage, Michael Cunningham), Gail Bell and, although I haven’t read it yet, my latest craze, Mollie Panter-Downes.  Limiting one’s focus onto a single day gives scope for close scrutiny of the quotidian and the elapse of hour after hour runs underneath the narrative like a bass-line.  But there’s a risk too – we all have our own mundane lives that are ticking over hour by hour too, and somehow or other the author needs to make you care enough about an ‘ordinary’ person to devote some hours of your life to watch someone else’s day unfolding as well as your own.

Characterization is fundamental to this contract between writer and reader.  You don’t need to like the character as such, but you have to at least care.  In this case, Stephen is a bit of a drifter, with a dead-end job as a kitchen-hand at the zoo, living a rather spare and bitten-down existence, aware of his family’s disappointment in him, likeable enough but wary of being tied down by commitment.  As he wakes on this hot Sydney morning, he knows that he is going to break off his relationship with Fiona, a good, passionate, separated woman, that day.  In this, he is quite steely, even though he knows that she is beautiful, that she loves him and her young daughters tolerate him, and that his mother has already absorbed them as ‘family’.  He combines inflexibility with irresoluteness; he is hard as steel and yet soft, he is selfish without asking for anything.  We probably all know someone like him.

Charlotte Wood is a good observer and it’s as if she has inserted herself behind our own eyes.  Her descriptions of the various people who orbit around Stephen have a verisimilitude similar to those in Tsiolkas’ The Slap– in fact, in many ways this book reminded me of The Slap in reverse.  The mounting heat of the day, and the brittle mania of a child’s birthday party add to the sense of unreality and the rising shriek of the day, as Stephen drifts closer and closer to making his break with Fiona.

There’s a second theme in the book- that of animals and the human relationship with them- that I felt was rather heavy-handed.  The parallels were rather too obvious, and it just seemed rather laboured.

I have read several very positive reviews of the book- in fact, people seem to be struck emotionally speechless by the book (for example, John Purcell on Booktopia and Michelle on Book To the Future).  I wouldn’t go that far.  Certainly, it was very easy to read, and I was quickly drawn in enough to want to keep reading, and it captured urban, middle class Sydney very well.  It had just a touch of the ‘book club’ about it, something that Lisa at ANZ LitLovers noted as well.  I don’t think that I mean this as a put-down (after all, I belong to online and face-to-face bookgroups myself) but there’s something about the straining for theme and topicality that made me wonder if it was written with this demographic in mind.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I enjoyed The Submerged Cathedral and because I wanted to review it as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge.