Review ‘The Animals in That Country’ Laura Jean McKay

Australian native animals not include with book © Gretchen Bernet-Ward 2021

My reading was floundering until this gleaming gem came along!  ‘The Animals in That Country’ is a novel with strange overtones and intense undercurrents.  Certainly a distinctive story with fear, confusion and confronting chapters involving the catastrophic side effects of human zooflu virus and the subsequent fallout for the animal world.

Kind of dystopian, kind of quirky,
this book made me think, it made me cringe,
it fascinated me, it troubled me,
and it will stay in my mind for a long time.

People succumb as the virus spreads across the country, or they try to outrun it, and some eventually arrive at the animal park where alcoholic ranger Jean Bennett works.  Her initial despair permeates these early chapters, both for the animals and her wayward son who causes problems.  Jean is careworn by events and decides to leave the native animal sanctuary with Dingo Sue to find her runaway family.

I may not like the disarray Jean and Dingo Sue get into as the pandemic spreads but it certainly makes riveting reading.  I trekked with them along dusty outback roads via devastated townships to reach the ocean.  They meet rough characters and conmen but Jean believes in Sue’s unerring instincts leading them towards the hypnotic seashore.

With a singular writing style, author Laura Jean McKay tackles a pandemic from a different angle.  The animals and birds are not anthropomorphised in the usual sense, and definitely not suitable for children.  At first Dingo Sue is unintelligible until gradually Jean understands the patterns of mind matching physical dialogue, and ‘speech’ is cleverly enhanced by page layouts.

The subtle yet resilient nurturing instincts of both human and animal infuses the story and this primitive and powerful connection twisted my brain.  I was gripped by the overwhelmed and distraught characters who learned that we are part of nature, dependent upon it for our existence and survival but it can drive us mad.

As I was nearing the final chapters, I heard that author McKay had won the coveted Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2021.  In a statement McKay said she had been writing a draft several years before coronavirus devastated the real world.  Apparently she was unwell with malaria-like symptoms while writing and said this may have accounted for the creeping darkness of the story, the uncertainty and panic is eerily similar.

This novel cries out for an Australian native animal bookcover ‘The clouds have parted, leaving the lit-up ghost of a dingo, a pale and vengeful ancestor on the passenger seat beside me … Her hair shifts.  Body ripples with messages that join like drops of water in the sea.’

Thoughts on ‘The Animals in That Country’

An earthy, supernatural tale, a reminder of Earl Nightingale’s quote ‘Never compete. Create’ and Laura Jean McKay has excelled.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward

PROFILE
Laura Jean McKay is the author of ‘The Animals in That Country’ (Scribe 2020) and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ (Black Inc. 2013) shortlisted for three national book awards in Australia.  Dr McKay is a lecturer in creative writing at Massey University NZ, with a PhD from University of Melbourne focusing on literary animal studies.
LINKS
Laura Jean McKay’s bio journal
http://laurajeanmckay.com/
McKay is the ‘animal expert’ presenter on ABC Listen’s ‘Animal Sound Safari’.
https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/animal-sound-safari/
FURTHER READING
Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2021
https://www.wheelercentre.com/projects/victorian-premier-s-literary-awards-2021
Scribe Publications information
https://scribepublications.com.au/books-authors/books/the-animals-in-that-country
The Dingos of Fraser Island Queensland
https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/kgari-fraser/about/fraser-island-dingoes/dingo-ecology

Feathered Fraudster or Duped Duck

Duck KSSS 02
Duck No: 4938

As I left the local gym, a rat scampered towards me waving a crumpled envelope.

“You’re Bertha East, right?” he squeaked. I started to explain I was Bertha West but he let the envelope flutter to the footpath and raced off. I scooped it up and saw on the back that it was from Duck No. 4938, a nodding acquaintance at the gym. The letter had been scribbled with a quill and Duck No. 4938 explained that she was currently behind bars at Critters Incarcerated. According to her letter, she was blameless of the charges levelled against her, while remaining tight-billed about her true intentions.

I was puzzled until next day the story became public knowledge. This had prompted her lawyer Henny McCluck to state that her client Duck No. 4938 was nowhere near The Duck Pond on the afternoon in question.

Apprehended with a plastic bag of crumbs under her wing, proceedings are currently underway to determine if Duck No. 4938 gobbled all the dry bread crusts before other ducks had a chance to exit the water. The Duck Pond is a popular picnic spot, a prominent sign warns Do Not Feed The Birds, and investigators are urging the child who dropped the bread crusts to come forward.

“My client pleads not guilty and hopes for early release,” said McCluck. She added that the Duckolympic champion held the coveted title of Paddling Fury and should be respected for her sporting prowess. I realised that this would not help her cause. In a photograph released today, Duck No. 4938 appeared rather haunted, her feathers askew. Lawyer McCluck can be seen loitering in the background.

Meanwhile, the letter I received from Duck No. 4938 hinted that she believes lawyer McCluck is pecking through what little grain savings she has left and asks for my support. I decided against sending a 2kg bag of cracked corn to the address she nominated and considered the letter to be some sort of scam.

The arrest had caused a flurry in the catering industry and representatives were standing in readiness to take stomach content samples.

By now social media tweets were going viral, ruffling large flocks of the feathered fraternity with #stuffedduck #duckdiving and #whatsitallaboutduckie.  Television news coverage focused on the issue of slim pickings for underprivileged water birds. Dramatic press headlines read “Feathered Fraudster” and “Dead in the Water” with an inflammatory byline from an angry drake.

“She snatched it right out from under my webbed feet!”

A shiver ran up my spine. The drake has engaged the services of Paulo Dingo, known in legal circles as ‘Hungry’.

Undisclosed sources close to The Duck Pond were striving to gain access to security camera videos which could prove Duck No. 4938 was not in the vicinity of the water’s edge at the time of the incident.

“Video footage won’t prove a thing,” said ‘Hungry’ Dingo in his scathing report on the inadequacy of the wildlife penal system. “Judge Cassowary wouldn’t know one duck from another,” he howled.

My after-lunch doze was unsettled by thoughts that blackmail and swamp weed may be at the root of the allegations. At the very least Duck No. 4938 may have been duped and become ensnared in a network of fowl crime. But why come to me? Why doesn’t she tell the truth?

The phone rang and I discovered that local Constable Steve Brolga was conducting enquiries. He said he would be undertaking a nest-to-nest search and interviewing anyone who may have seen or heard Duck No. 4938 acting suspiciously in the surrounding area.

“Keep your ears tuned for me, Bertha,” he said.

My ears twitched and I pondered the fact that Duck No. 4938 may have a secret hiding place. Unexpectedly I had the answer. A clutch of ducklings, safely hidden from the likes of ‘Hungry’ Dingo.

A guilty verdict would certainly hinder her parental responsibilities. She had to plan, she needed someone on the outside, someone who lived nearby and could go to the address in the letter. Someone she could trust to protect her family.

I confided my swirling thoughts to young Joey.
“I guess I can help,” I mused, “What’s 2kg of cracked corn anyway?”
He was dubious and thought it may have been a trap. “Or we might be followed.”

But the more we talked, the more I thought about food relief. “Maybe we could scrounge some stale bread rolls from the back of the supermarket?”

This proved to be a difficult task and I scrambled over enough plastic bags and wasted food to last me a lifetime. A couple of crows helped by flicking slices of bread out of a half-opened skip but maintained their image by cawing loudly every time one hit me on the head. Joey laughed until a mouldy slice hit him.

Next day I alerted Constable Brolga and planned to meet him at the location specified by Duck No. 4938. Joey and I set off mid-morning and arrived earlier than intended. I stopped at a rusty wire gate to confirm the address.

“This is it.” The only noise was the rustling of eucalyptus leaves.

Before I could stop him, Joey bounced out with the bulky package and pushed through the gate.
“Let’s blow this case wide open!”
I sighed and shoved the letter back in my pouch.

We hopped up a set of shallow steps to the wooden door of an old shed. Heat radiated from the corrugated iron cladding and we strained to hear any sound of ducklings from within. Flies buzzed around us, the smell was overpowering and Joey wrinkled his nose. I knocked forcefully, rattling the door.

There was scuffling and very slowly and carefully the door slid open. Suddenly we were engulfed in a tide of fluffy yellow pinfeathers and eagerly quacking bills. Joey moved forward as bright little eyes scanned our food parcel.

He held up his paw. “Who wants to be first in line?”

I felt comfortable with our decision. Whatever truths the trial may reveal, the innocent must not suffer.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward