The low down:
On this stiflingly hot December day, Stephen has decided it’s time to break up with his girlfriend Fiona. He’s 39, aimless and unfulfilled, but without a clue how to make his life better. All he has are his instincts – and they may be his downfall.
Stephen is a character from Charlotte’s earlier novel The Children – a story of siblings reunited when their father is critically injured. His role in that book is the ‘hopeless’ brother, a loner, he keeps himself distanced from the drama as much as possible. His presence broods in the background.
This brooding presence is brought in to the spotlight in Animal People; you are dropped right inside Stephen’s head and the experience is mesmerising. We follow his movements across the landscape of Sydney, from an awkward encounter with his neighbour’s dog, to team-building exercises at the zoo where he works, to a children’s birthday party filled with people who don’t like him. While he seems intent on avoiding emotional intimacy at all costs, he finds himself bombarded with people who expect some kind of connection from him.
I could easily relate to Stephen in these situations, and much of the story is darkly funny – in particular, please look out the birthday fairy. I had difficulty picturing other characters and some appeared more like caricatures than fully realised people. This could be because we view them through Stephen’s skewed perspective. We rarely see other people as fully realised as we see ourselves and in this way, Charlotte comments on our quickness to judge others.
Throughout the day Stephen’s thoughts return again and again to animals and our interactions with them. He puzzles over the relationships people form with these creatures – the ‘other’. Having grown up in the kind of household where I sometimes sit on the floor rather than push the dog off the couch, I understand why he might be puzzled. His reflections are rife for further thought from the reader. At one point he comments on how visitors to the zoo always want animals to notice them and comments that, ‘surely the most appealing thing about animals was that – far from offering unconditional love – they wanted nothing from you’.