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