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