Review: The Animals in That Country12 January 2021
Laura Jean McKay: The Animals in That Country
Scribe Publications, 2020.
ISBN, 9781925849530, $29.99, pp. 288.
“Dingoes wear their fur like feelings: all sleek and shiny when they’re relaxed, a thick bank of heckle when they get wound up. Sue is wound up” (7).
Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country is a novel of grit and connection to not only people, but animals and the landscape of Australia. The story follows grandmother Jean, who works for her granddaughter’s mother. Kimberly is one of the only humans that Jean is able to connect with, otherwise spending most of her time with animals, in particular a dingo called Sue.
Set in an animal park in the middle of a pandemic that causes pink eye and the ability to communicate with animals, McKay’s story is incredibly interesting for our current climate. What readers are shown replicates the experiences of our own pandemic in a number of ways – the frantic spread and people just not listening to instructions.
Jean doesn’t care as much, rationing her food and keeping people out of the park until her absent son Lee shows up and takes Kimberly to talk to whales on the coast. Lee is already infected and spreads this to everyone in the park.
“Their bodies make pictures that get inside my bones until I’m half cow with skin shivers and nose chatters, pregnant again and again” (193).
Where most of the infected are troubled into madness as they find themselves communicating with animals in a way they never have before, for Jean it feels almost normal as she and dingo, Sue, communicate and follow behind Lee to rescue Kimberly. McKay’s true skill is in comparing the means of communication and allowing enough detail to demonstrate the sickness, mixed with sparsity that lets her language breathe layers. She is careful in her choices and dynamics as a writer, allowing space for the reader to grow.
This is a strength to a number of emerging Australian stories that show similar grit and no-nonsense plots. It’s not decorative or longflowing, but has a poetry to it that is uniquely ours.
There were some places where I had hoped for more, to understand the world beyond just Jean. However, I think that this could have removed the pre-existing impact of the story, overtelling and ruining it as a result.
“Home is dead on the shore. Home is waving at me from up on the verge. Home is where Sue calls and calls from the beach, no good to anybody” (213).
What we have here is a novel that is sure to make it onto school reading lists. An engaging and intriguing story of the connections we have to people and place.