Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2011

Animal People (2011), by Charlotte Wood

Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

Charlotte Wood is an impressive Aussie author.  The ANZ LitLovers book group has read and enjoyed discussing both her novels, The Submerged Cathedral and The Children. (See my review).  She is a sharp and witty observer of human frailty, and her mastery of characterisation is superb.

Character is what drives Animal People.  Readers of The Children will remember Stephen: he is the loser, the ‘hopeless’ one, the one who dithers about going nowhere.  In a dynamic family Stephen was a drifter and he drove his siblings to distraction.  Charlotte Wood has made this character and a single day in his so-ordinary life the focus of Animal People.  Perhaps contrary to expectation, it works perfectly.

In a revealing interview with Jo Case, Wood said that she recognises the need to grow and develop in her writing.  She needs

a kind of technical challenge to kick-start the writing for me, and in this book the time frame was that challenge. The challenge was to write my way through a thoroughly ordinary day while hopefully making it an extraordinary, life-changing one for Stephen. One of the challenges was to keep up a lively, naturalistic narrative that revealed things about Stephen without lumping in too much static flashback. But I also liked what it offered, in terms of the pressure one could bring to bear. We have all had days from hell –those days where one catastrophe leads to another and another, and I thought there was lots of dramatic potential in that.

Now the most famous literary day is of course Leopold Bloom’s in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Animal People is nothing like that!  It’s much shorter for a start, and this is one of the things I like about Wood’s writing: it is tightly focussed – and beautifully edited – so that not one word is wasted and there is no extraneous padding.  Like the novels of Thea Astley, it ‘packs its punch’ in a couple of hundred perfectly placed words.  Like the author herself, I found the character of Stephen strangely compelling.  I finished the book last night and I’m still thinking about what there is to admire about him…

In a city focussed on wealth-creation and social prestige, Stephen is a sandwich hand, working at the zoo, (presumably Sydney’s iconic Taronga Park zoo).  But in a world where specialty shops have taken anthropomorphism to a bizarre extent, Stephen’s not interested in animals of any kind.  He’s almost immobilised by companion animals, a fear of engagement which manifests itself in a debilitating allergy.  Naturally dogs and cats love him – how do they always know?? The novel shows people trying to get close to him too but he pushes them away – like the neighbour’s dog – because he fears relationships and the demands they make.

His inertia still irritates his family but the irritation is mutual because Stephen feels he is being pushed into making choices he isn’t ready for and doesn’t care about.  His mother, (deliberately not well-drawn in The Children) is a tiresome busybody, appropriating Fiona’s two girls as grandchildren even while Stephen is still hesitating about moving in with them.   Cathy, Stephen’s sister gives him a good tongue-lashing when she realises that he’s about to withdraw from yet another relationship.   Mandy, a key character in The Children, is more subdued and less interesting in this one.  (I found myself wondering what has become of that fire and energy – see how Wood’s characters lodge their way into a reader’s consciousness? I read The Children two years ago!)

(I hope I’m not making it seem as if The Children is essential pre-reading; like Steven Carroll’s Glenroy trilogy Animal People explores characters introduced in an earlier novel but can be read independently of it).

I can quite understand Steven’s reluctance to take on his girlfriend’s bratty children.  I can’t think of another author who has so perfectly rendered the contemporary small girl in all her ghastly phases.  Princesses indeed!  The birthday party that explodes into the sort of dramatic tantrum we have all witnessed when The Birthday Girl doesn’t get her own way is captured superbly, the brittle adults competing for attention exactly as the children do.

But children who might worm their way into his affections are only part of Stephen’s fear of engagement in grown-up love.  Fiona is the ex-wife of Richard, a rich, powerful and pompous lawyer used to getting his own way.  (It seems to me that in an uncharacteristic lapse, Wood has fallen victim to stereotyping with this character: lawyers are easy prey for an author and this one has no redeeming features at all.  Which begs the question: why did Fiona marry him in the first place?)  Anyway, for Stephen, Fiona’s lifestyle, her wealth, her social status and her connections are all alienating.  He knows he doesn’t fit in, and he fears (with some justification) that Fiona has to defend her choice of him as lover to her friends and family.  He has left it rather late to make changes in his life so that he could feel comfortable in her world.  The unresolved question at the novel’s heart is, if he overcomes his resistance to commitment, can she fit into his world?  Can love conquer all?  It didn’t in Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, a much earlier story about differences in social status feeding male inertia!

I think that book groups will really enjoy this story for reasons I can’t explain without revealing spoilers.  Suffice to say that one of the questions to discuss is: what does Fiona see in this apparently dreary man?  Why would she want him?

I reviewed an uncorrected proof copy so I can’t quote some truly delicious excerpts, but as you read this book, look out for a most disconcerting description of ‘getting to know your neighbours’ and the hilarious Ella sitting at the table in her fairy costime waiting for her birthday present!

You can find out more about Charlotte Wood on her website.

Update Feb 7 2012
I’ve just discovered two gorgeous reviews of this wonderful book.  See Michelle’s at Book to the Future and John Purcell’s at Booktopia.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: Animal People
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2011
ISBN: 9781742376851
Source: Uncorrected proof copy by courtesy of Allen and Unwin.


  1. Sounds great, Lisa. Have been looking forward to this one, ever since I read The Submerged Cathedral in January and the author tweeted that she was working on Animal People! I think I have The Children somewhere in the stacks, brought on a previous trip, so perhaps I’ll dig that out. By that time the new one might have been made available to buy in this neck of the woods.


    • She’s a terrific author: there’s so much more to this book than I’ve written about because I don’t want to do spoilers, but it’s rich in all kinds of current issues as well as the character plot. I’m pretty sure you’ll love this!


  2. Intrigued by the snippet quoted above, I enjoyed reading the full interview and I was captivated by Wood’s response to Jo Case’s questions. Wood says: ‘It is very strange how fictional characters can sort of embed themselves in one’s consciousness almost as if they are real.’
    There are a number of reasons why writers start their next project before the current one is finalised but I think the main driving force is the difficulty of saying goodbye to the characters.


    • Which one is still lurking in your consciousness from 8 States of Catastrophe, Karen?


      • Without hesitation, I say Daniella of the ‘nine lives’. I will definitely have to drop in on her again sometime.
        Having said that, I miss them all but – for some – there is simply no going back.


        • Now that’s interesting – because she’s my favourite character too…


  3. This sounds fantastic, Lisa. It just went on the wishlist.

    I’m curious – do you think it would make any difference if I read them out of order? I’ve often wondered if I’d read Atwood’s Oryx & Crake after reading Year of the Flood how the experience would have been different. Are there any revelations in The Children that have significance in Animal People? or vice-versa?


    • I hesitate to say for sure, but I think it wouldn’t matter…I do like having read The Children first, though, because it makes chronological sense.


  4. Thanks, Lisa – I’ve got it on my list :)


  5. Lisa – I finished Animal People yesterday. I loved it – I think her characterisations are razor sharp and everyone would probably know someone in the book!! I don’t think it matters at all if you haven’t read The Children (although we have) – but it does add an extra dimension to the reading of this book if you have. I almost wish Woods would write a third book of these people……


    • Hi Kate, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, I think she’s a fine writer.
      I wonder if she will? She likes to experiment and ‘grow’ as a writer so perhaps she may feel that she wants to move on?


  6. Hi Lisa. I loved your take on Animal People – I admire the way you related Stephen’s allergies to animals and his isolation from humans. And Stephen and Fiona’s relationship – as much as I wanted them to be together, I find it difficult to imagine how they could make their relationship work.

    I’m looking forward to reading The Children now!


  7. […] to add: While I’m linking to reviews, Lisa from the ANZ LitLovers Blog has also written a stunning (as usual!) review of Animal People. It’s definitely worth checking […]


  8. […] of family dynamics, Forster reminds me of Charlotte Wood at her best (in The Children, and in Animal People). There is that same genius at capturing the hostilities of children and their meditations on parents […]


  9. […] Animal People by Charlotte Wood, see my review. […]


  10. […] that I so admired in her previous novels: The Submerged Cathedral, (2004); The Children (2007) and Animal People (2011).  However, in The Weekend, Wood’s focus is not on the claims of family but on the […]


  11. […] Submerged Cathedral (2004) which I read before starting ANZLitLovers, while The Children (2007) and Animal People (2011) are reviewed on this blog. I thought The Natural Way of Things was an important book, but […]


  12. […] Animal People by Charlotte Wood, see my review […]


  13. I especially like the sound of this one!


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