Wittgenstein wrote that “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” In her fierce debut novel, Australian Laura Jean McKay sets herself an extraordinary challenge: to represent animal communication in words. The book succeeds by walking a difficult and delicate line between understanding and incomprehension, creating something like dirty realism out of its fantastical premise. The revelatory allure of talking with animals recurs throughout literature; as our appealingly spiky narrator Jean says, staring into the eyes of a caged dingo at the zoo where she works as a guide: “Tell me she doesn’t know something about the world that you and me haven’t ever thought of.”
Alcoholic Jean has led a rackety life before coming to rest at the zoo run by her daughter-in-law, Angela; now she divides her time between feeding her addiction and staying straight enough to babysit her granddaughter Kimberley. “She’s a grandma, for shitsake, not a ranger,” but she longs to get closer to the animals, and as the novel opens nips over a fence to free dingo Sue’s foot from wire, getting a bite on the hand in the process. Jean is used to much harder knocks in life than a dingo bite – it’s just Sue’s “way of saying, ‘You’re in my face, bitch’” – but the wound will throb and worsen for the rest of the novel, a symbol of the rising chaos.
News comes in of a “zooflu” epidemic roaring up from the south, enabling “enhanced communication between humans and nonhuman animals”. Those infected are going mad, some killing their pets and some releasing animals from captivity, some blissed out in a higher state of consciousness and some stubbornly resistant to enlightenment: “I’m not hanging around here for some crumby crocodile to start talking,” says one zoo employee.
Jean is keen to catch the disease; she’s been doing animal voices to delight Kimberley and zoo visitors for years, much to Angela’s disapproval (“people who anthropomorphise tend not to read cues, and people who don’t read cues are dangerous”). And she’s always had a special connection with Sue, ever since she found her as a pup. But when the flu hits, it’s disorienting and terrifying, beginning with a gas of fear coming off the mice bred as food for the other animals, and an overwhelming vision of death. “All around me trails of glowing messages have been laid out overnight. In stench, in calls, in piss, in tracks, in blood, in shit, in sex, in bodies …”
McKay sets out the animals’ communications in bold font, as short gnomic poems that hover somewhere between concrete poetry and a bad translation app. “The/ one made of bones and/ biscuits. The (Yesterday) spray./ I’m here for the/ Queen,” is Sue’s message to Jean when they come face to face. “Well. I don’t have any fucking idea,” Jean replies. But as the pair embark on a confused, hard-drinking road trip from the heat-baked north to the rainy south in pursuit of Kimberley and Jean’s prodigal son Lee, who has whisked his daughter off to the coast to find out what whale song really means, their understanding develops. Jean knows that to Sue she is “the den to come back to and a poison pellet all at once”; Sue addresses Jean as queen, mother, bad dog and good cat by turns as they jostle for seniority, a pack of two.
But though McKay puts the thoughts and feelings of cows, cats, pigs, birds and even insects into words, she is careful never to over-explicate. Sue and Jean remain mysterious and unpredictably violent to each other. Animals refer to humans as “it”, in a clever reversal of the way we (literally) dehumanise our fellow creatures. They also set out their questions as statements, so that uncertainty and confusion ring throughout the book with an eerie, unanswerable finality. Their utterances are, unavoidably, human interpretation; thus we hear from a sick pig urging its fellows to leave it behind, “Send me/ a postcard.”
Human reactions to this strange new reality are united by their solipsism. “Hello, I’m a person. A human. I want to talk to you,” Angela says, most unwisely, to the zoo’s crocodile. Many people cover their faces with masks and stuff their ears to keep out the cacophony, the government mounting a “cover and calm” campaign as the country lapses into anarchy. (The prescience of McKay’s pandemic scenario has been followed, ironically enough, by a lockdown delay in publication – the book should have come out six months ago.)
McKay has a PhD in literary animal studies, and there is some stunning nature writing here: dingoes “wear their fur like feelings”, showing a “thick bank of heckle when they get wound up”; cows have “hip bones awkward as stilts against their own weight”; whales out to sea are “pleated concrete slabs”. Her writing about people, meanwhile, is filthy, fresh and funny; this is prose on high alert, hackles up and teeth bared in every sentence. The novel becomes both a stirring attempt to inhabit other consciousnesses and a wry demonstration of the limits of our own language and empathy.
• The Animals in That Country is published by Scribe (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.