Wood doesn’t hammer her themes but there is plenty to think about in this novel. As a sucker for books where the characters learn something, I recommend Animal People as a very satisfying read.
As someone who has always lived with animals, whether cats, fish, rabbits, chickens, dogs or farm animals, I tend to think people who don’t like them are less than human. This means that I am exactly the sort of person that Stephen, the antihero of this novel, finds unfathomable. Yet readers won’t find Stephen hard to fathom at all.
Animal People is a book for every person who has ever looked at a commitment-phobic man and wondered why on earth he doesn’t sort himself out. Stephen knows he is hopeless at everything. He works in the kiosk at the zoo, he wears fake chef’s pants from Aldi, he’s dating Fiona, who is much wealthier and emotionally grounded than he is, and he knows just how he is viewed by her family and former partner.
Stephen is the disengaged brother from Wood’s earlier novel The Children, but you don’t need to have read it to appreciate this book. His female relatives make decisive appearances here, but they are well drawn and Stephen stands alone, if you can use that expression to describe someone so apathetic.
Animal People is told over the course of the longest day of poor Stephen’s life. From waking until sunset, his miseries are piled one upon the other; sometimes hilariously, always poignantly. The skill Wood has is to make you care for Stephen, and like him. Wood writes about men really well – she’s affectionate, yet clear-eyed. You want to shake Stephen and make him wake up to himself, but you never feel actually angry with him. He’s free of malice and he is trying to do the right thing. In fact, you sense he is on the cusp of understanding something, if only he would stop for a minute. It’s this suspense that drives the novel.
The writing is beautiful and it’s lovely to read such crisp, honest realism. Wood does not put a word out of place, and lightly weaves in observations about modern life, politics and the judgements we all make of each other. As we walk through Stephen’s excruciating day with him we feel the heat and tragedy of an inner city mall and an entirely recognizable, traffic-snarled, Sydney road. We suffer with him as he observes the peculiarities of people’s love for animals, and endures the zoo and his workplace. When we finally get to his girlfriend’s languid beach suburb, Wood makes sure we don’t see it as romantic; the adults in it are too insufferable for that.