Laura Jean McKay: The Animals in That Country

This debut novel has won many awards, including the Victorian Prize for Literature and the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. It is certainly a book of speculative fiction. The title pays homage to a poem by Margaret Atwood.

In Margaret Atwood’s poem the animals ‘have the faces of people’ and the teeth in the bull who is slaughtered ‘are human’. At the end of the poem, the animals ‘have the faces of no-one’. Margaret Atwood, ‘The animals in that country’ from Selected Poems 19.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47791/the-animals-in-that-country

What if a virus could give humans the ability to communicate with animals? This book was published at the time of the Covid pandemic, but that was just coincidence. In this book, ‘zooflu’ is rampaging through the country and one of the main consequences is that infected humans gain an understanding of the communication of nonhuman animals — at first mammals, then birds, then insects. So that the world for these humans is an excruciating buzzing of communication. Words — but not always immediately easy to understand.

The main character Jean is not particularly likeable — rough and feisty from the school of hardknocks. She isn’t sociable and, only when lack of alcohol permits, does she want to love and look after her granddaughter, Kimberley. Jean works as a guide at a wildlife park. She is fond of a particular dingo, Sue. Early in the book she tries to free Sue from a wire fence and Sue bites her hand and throughout the story, the infection in Jean’s hand festers and worsens. The bite by no means destroys the relationship between Jean and Sue. Jean, like everyone else, gets the zooflu and after a while she hears:

Queen.

A whiff of

Queen

Queen

is here

She realises it’s Sue, the dingo. At other times Sue refers to Jean as ‘good cat’. The animals always use the pronoun ‘it’ — not ‘his’, ‘her’, etc — perhaps getting back at the way we often refer to them as ‘it’.

The animals communicate like this — not always from their mouths. This certainly isn’t anthropomorphism. Early in the book — before the pandemic strikes — Jean is warned against her tendency to anthropomorphise: ‘people who anthropomorphise tend not to read the cues, and people who don’t read cues are dangerous’. The animals’ words are spaced out, sometimes like haiku, and printed in bold. So we read them slowly and it’s hard to understand — as it would be. There was lots that I felt I didn’t ‘get’ (although I liked Sue calling birds ‘sky meat’). But if we had zooflu we would be in a state of confusion, trying to figure out what the animals were saying.

Because of the zooflu pandemic, the wildlife park is abandoned. Jean’s son Lee takes Kimberley (his six year-old daughter) down south to find out what whale song really means — something that has intriuged humans for some time; I think of And God Created Great Whales, a symphonic poem by Alan Hovhaness that uses recorded whale song with symphony orchestra creating a haunting effect as low strings shimmer under the loud whale cries. Much of the story is a road trip. Jean takes Sue with her in a campervan in pursuit of Lee and Kimberley. The whales have a strong allure and after driving for many days, Jean does find Lee and Kimberley on a beach with crowds of people. It is too late to recue Lee, who drowns in his pursuit. Kimberley is taken away by police, to be returned to her mother up north — Jean is seen as too irresponsible to care for her.

People with zooflu have different reactions to nonhuman animals. Some are terrified, filled with hatred — they kill their pets and, for example, when Jean is passing through a town she isn’t welcome anywhere because of Sue’s presence. Jean is compassionate — there’s a love between her and Sue. Sometimes they cuddle up together to sleep and Jean is threatened when Sue has the chance to join a dingo pack. At one point on the journey she releases pigs who have been crammed into a truck on their way to be slaughtered and an observation is made that this treatment of nonhuman animals is more cruel than what the Nazis did.

In the end Jean, at the side of the road, is handed a pill by the Army. They have to be sure that she takes it — and can use force if necessary. It reminded me of the suicide pills distributed in On the Beach, to be taken when radiation sickness became unbearable. But this is the opposite — a cure. Jean is forced to take it. A little later she tries to vomit it up, but is unable to and she is already starting to find it hard to understand the communication of birds overhead and what Sue says becomes a bit indistinct.

This book was pervaded by a sense of unease. I was on edge all the time I read it. Can we understand animals at all? What might become of us if we could? And what might become of the world?