Cover of book: The Animals in That Country

Laura Jean McKay
The Animals in That Country

The Animals in That Country, the debut novel of Laura Jean McKay, has certainly hit the jackpot for timeliness. The novel is about a virus that sweeps through Australia, leading to government lockdowns and generating widespread hysteria. That virus even has an association with animals, though the effects of the novel’s “Zooflu” are very different from those of Covid-19. Humans infected by the “talking animal disease” develop the discombobulating ability to understand non-human animals. Plot-wise and with regard to tone, this novel is a hybrid beast, sitting somewhere between the dystopia of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the absurdity of Doctor Dolittle. However, as an attempt to reimagine how we understand our place in the animal world, this novel stands alone.

The novel is narrated in the colloquial voice of Jean Bennett, a tour guide at an animal park reminiscent of Queensland’s Australia Zoo. Jean is an Aussie larrikin, a working-class renegade, something of an outcast. She drives a Holden – “one of the only things my ex left me” – and is too fond of the booze. Indeed, some of her drunken, sordid behaviours call to mind another Australian novel of the outback, Wake in Fright.

Jean is also a devoted grandmother to Kim, a child of uncertain paternity. Jean’s other attachment is to one of the animals at the park, a “half camp-mutt-kelpie-cross, half dingo” named Sue. Jean tells us that when Sue “opened her eyes to the world for the first time, there I was”. Jean even cosseted the pup against her tattooed breast. Thus Jean is a maternal figure to both child and dingo (which is somewhat ironic, given their antipathetic history in Australia).

Before the virus hits, Jean does a comic routine in anthropocentrically interpreting what the native animals in the zoo say. She interprets the bush fowl’s call of “Eh oh eh eh oh! Eh eh eh eh oh!” as “Uh oh, uh oh, I’ve lost my keys. Better scratch around for them, aye?” Tourists and her granddaughter enjoy these comic renditions.

Jean’s interactions with the zoo animals typify the contradictory relationship we have with animals. On the one hand, we figure animals as “other” in ways that allow us to entrap and ogle them – as well as slaughter and eat them, use them as test subjects, make them run around racetracks, domesticate them into pets et cetera. (Notably, only by regarding other human groups as animals have we been able to treat them in similar ways.) On the other hand, we paradoxically anthropomorphise animals – that is, we define them in terms of human qualities – in a manner that reveals a profound sense of affinity. This happens most obviously in children’s culture, where animals often function as stand-ins for human subjects. It is also present in the way we infantilise our domestic pets.

While it may seem well-meaning, such anthropomorphism refuses animals a unique experience of being, which emerges from their unique experience of embodiment. This is a point made by various philosophers, perhaps most famously Nagel and Wittgenstein. Nagel argued it is impossible for humans to understand the consciousness of a bat, because it is impossible for us to inhabit the unique sensorium of a bat. On similar grounds Wittgenstein argued that “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him”.

What is so exciting about McKay’s novel is the way she refuses both anthropocentrism and the philosophical position that non-human animals are inevitably alien to us. Given we all exist on a species continuum, one might argue that anthropocentrism makes more sense than alienation. Significantly, the “Zooflu” enables human animals to hear non-human animals “via major senses such as sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound” in ways that return us to our creaturely embodiment. However, given that The Animals in That Country is a novel, those senses need to be rendered in language, which presents something of an artistic challenge. How does McKay solve this problem? She feels her way into animal bodies and their potential to communicate through poetry. Yes, when Jean catches the virus – something she had hoped to do – and begins authentically hearing animals’ voices, they speak to her in verse.

Conveying animal speech as poetry might initially seem absurd, but it struck me as genius. Poetry is often figured as a literary genre that privileges the expression of feeling, not only when it comes to emotions such as melancholy or rapture, but also when it comes to the ineffable feeling of words – something generated through their visual qualities, their sounds and their tactile properties. Poetry demonstrates how words in fact engage the full range of our senses, and how our ways of understanding are always embodied, going beyond the purely “rational” – the attribute we traditionally associate with human thought.

McKay, of course, is not the first to attempt to render animal consciousness with the help of poetry. Ted Hughes’s animal poems for children, Les Murray’s “The Cows on Killing Day”, and Judith Beveridge’s “The Domesticity of Giraffes” come to mind. However, McKay arguably takes more risks with her poetry and animal characterisations, and those risks engender continual surprises and delights.

So what do the animals in McKay’s novel say? A key fascination the novel holds is its imagining of the speech of dingoes, crocodiles, whales, cows, birds and even insects – so much so that I am reluctant to give anything away. Suffice it to say, the speech of animals holds as much fascination for the characters, who start releasing animals from zoos and farms. Government forces struggle to police species boundaries and maintain social order.

The babel of species that emerges is hardly a utopia. Indeed, another of the novel’s strengths is that its thought experiment is conducted without sentimentality, though it is always characterised by humour and warmth. There is also a fast-paced plot, as Jean embarks on a road trip to save her granddaughter, with the dingo Sue riding shotgun. If you read The Animals in That Country, it will be the wildest ride you take all year.

Maria Takolander

Scribe, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "Laura Jean McKay, The Animals in That Country".

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