Most of us have wondered, at some point in our lives, what animals were thinking, and perhaps felt it would be fascinating to communicate with them. But Laura Jean McKay’s novel doesn’t follow your cute Doctor Dolittle Disney story trope. It’s gritty, hard to swallow at times, and leaves the reader questioning the relationship between humanity and kindness.

The story follows Jean, a “give-no-f***s” grandmother who works at a zoo in country Australia owned by her daughter-in-law, Angela. Although Jean is not a qualified ranger, Angela keeps Jean around to babysit her granddaughter, Kimberly. To Jean, her estranged son Lee and Kimberly are the only things that matter besides booze, smokes and a quick root.

Jean’s simple life at the zoo is turned upside down when news reports flood in of a strange new illness called ‘zooflu’ affecting humans at zoos and wildlife parks south of the zoo. The infected are able to communicate with animals, and Jean is eager to catch the disease as she seems to share a special bond with the animals, especially with a dingo named Sue. Food becomes scarce, and as tensions rise between workers and animals Lee returns home, only to kidnap his daughter Kimberly and travel south to the beach along with hordes of other infected people. Jean has no choice but to take off after them and bring them back home with the help of Sue.

McKay, who holds a PhD in literary animal studies, and delivers a fascinating picture of what communication between humans and animals would look like. The author uses short, sometimes incomprehensible phrases in bold font and parentheses to represent the animals’ sounds and body language. The descriptions of the scents and sounds they omit and the movement of their fur offers a portrayal of the way in which animals might communicate with humans that feels remarkably believable. The way McKay represents the languages of different animal species’ may leave the reader a little confused at first, but as the story develops the animals become easier to understand.

The exploration of kinship, the untrusting nature of people and how different animal species view humans are stand-out aspects of this novel. The “rough as guts” Jean is a lovable and humorous narrator and her relationship with Sue makes for great comedic relief during the times in the story when they are in unwelcoming company and ‘animal free’ zones. The humans Jean meets on her journey are probably the most unlikable characters in the story, often presenting as apathetic. In contrast, being offered glimpses into animals’ minds was one of the most powerful offerings of this novel.

This is a book for anyone who has ever wanted to talk to animals, or even just looked at their pet and wondered what they were thinking. This reviewer certainly looked at her cat differently after reading. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic fantasies or magical realism, this is definitely one for your must-read list.

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay, is published by Scribe.

Nelya Valamanesh is a second-generation Iranian migrant working and residing on Kaurna Country. Her work revolves specifically around sharing stories and narratives of people of colour through a queer lens. Over years Nelya has taken this passion and collaborated on theatre, film, TV, and writing projects.

A Year in Review  is an initiative by  Writers SA, with assistance from the Australia Council of the Arts, to produce a series of book reviews published in InDaily  over 12 months.

The reviews will focus on titles published during the pandemic, highlighting the work of Australian authors and publishers during this difficult time for the sector, and giving literary critics an outlet for their work that supports a strong culture of reading.

See previously published reviews  here.

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