This book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for 2021 and it comes emblazoned with glowing praise from other writers and reviews. ‘A game-changing, life-changing’ novel, it is supposed to be, according to Ceridwen Dovey. High praise indeed, but I’m afraid that it left me rather cold.
Jean is an older woman who has lived hard. She is an untrained wildlife carer and guide in a refuge, a job that allows her to be close to her granddaughter Kimberley. Kimberley’s mother, Ange,the manager of the refuge, grudgingly allows Jean to live on site even though her partner, Lee (Jean’s son) shot through years ago. News begins filtering through of a pandemic – [oh yes, a pandemic. Are we about to be deluged with books about pandemics? Spare us] – colloquially known as ‘zooflu’ which turns your eyes red and makes you able to understand animals talking. I must admit that the implausibility of this turned me off from the start.
The effect was not Dr Doolittle. Instead, people were driven crazy by the voices that they heard, and as fear gripped the community, some chose to expunge every animal from their environment; while others were drawn to the animals who surrounded them, to their own peril.
When the infection finally reached the wildlife refuge, they were closed down immediately. Jean’s son Lee, already suffering from the influenza returns home, and takes his estranged daughter Kimberley with him. Jean feels compelled to follow.
Jean drinks too much, smokes too much, and is harsh and uncouth. She does love animals, though, especially a dingo called Sue, even though Sue had bitten her when she was trying to release her from some wire. Jean and Sue take off in their ute, following Lee and Kimberley’s trail through an increasingly desolate landscape. Jean is infected too, and soon can hear Sue’s thoughts. The infection from the dingo bite is becoming increasingly toxic as the surrounding animals become more menacing, and as societal norms break down.
So what do these animals sound like? McKay depicts their language in a sort of blank verse in a bold font, tangentially related to events, usually fixated on food or excretion, and somehow ‘off’.
over the lock (I’m
mingy.) It’ll call me and
to get a drink of
I must confess that I found these animal dialogues opaque (as they were intended to be) and rather twee. I kept thinking “this book is ridiculous”, and even though the concept is interesting, this is pretty much the way I felt through the whole book. Written in Jean’s voice – and a limited and uneducated voice it is, too – it is told in the present tense throughout. There were many times when I was confused about what was happening, although my confusion was generally resolved so that I think I know what happened.
I’m surprised that this book has received the acclaim it has. Although it was written prior to our own pandemic, it probably was released into a market more primed for pandemic-books than might have been the case five years earlier. I found the basic premise implausible (although interesting) and the writing rather flat. Not my type of book, I’m afraid.
My rating: 6/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
I have included this on the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge.