I read Charlotte Wood’s novel Animal People twice. I think it’s one of the best contemporary novels I have read. But I cannot review it. I tried a number of times and failed each time. I only recently realised why this is. I don’t want to review Animal People. I want to recommend it.
The trouble is, I can’t recommend it to just anybody.
Sure, some part of me wants to help encourage complacent book club readers the world over to read it. I would like to think it would do them good (and Charlotte Wood’s bank balance good). But, if the truth be told, I don’t want them to.
If they read it they may want to discuss it, as few people these days can understand a book without first discussing it with their peers. They may take the central character of Animal People, Stephen, and compare him with people they know. They may debate whether he is a sympathetic character or not. They may ask what the significance of the dog might be, what the title means, what the ending means. I don’t want them to do any of these things. I want them to wander away from the safety of the group. I want them to let their guard down. I want them to be smacked in the face by Animal People. If they’re not willing to take a few hits, I don’t think they deserve to read Animal People.
So who can I recommend it to?
I felt I had been dismantled, cleaned and reassembled by the novel. The novel did not change me. It reintroduced me to the important parts that make up who I am.
To write a review is to accept that this book is like the last book I reviewed. That Charlotte Wood’s reason for writing is much like any other novelist’s reason for writing – to tell a story. Well I can’t do that. I feel that Charlotte Wood is an artist, a thinker, an observer, a chronicler, a radical whose work has great value above and beyond the standardised judgements of our day. Wood is writing literature of the kind which hopes to hit upon universal truths using only the simplest and most delicate tools.
Animal People is not a long novel. It follows one man as he makes his way through a single day. But even so, within these pages Wood examines some of the loudest issues of our time – terrorism, materialism, social inequality, social welfare, animal cruelty, isolation – and the quietest – love, despair, commitment, loneliness, honesty. In brief, her little novel stalks the greatest of subjects, the human condition. How we live, how we love and how we communicate. And she does so with prose that is spare, considered, beautiful and graceful.
After I finished the novel I opened it again and read the first line – and was drawn right back in again. I might even have read it a third time had it not occurred to me to read The Children, an earlier novel by Wood, where Stephen the main character, makes his first appearance.
I don’t read many novels twice, but there was something extremely attractive to me about Stephen and his day. Integrity is attractive. It is something that requires effort to gain and, in this shoddy world, almost superhuman strength to retain. And it is rare. Stephen, has integrity.
But by every one of today’s standards, Stephen is a failure. He is not married, he hasn’t any kids of his own, owns nothing, he is bright but has no career, no ambition. When we first meet him he’s as naked as the day he was born. It is my contention that he is in the predicament we find him in because he has integrity. He just wants to live an authentic life. And all paths forward seem paved with falsehoods.
And this is Stephen’s problem. How is he to proceed through life if he can’t express himself honestly, truly and simply? In the first few pages we are told he intends to break up with girlfriend, Fiona, that evening. But he can’t really say why. It is just something he feels he must do. The very idea of it oppresses him. He cannot fault his girlfriend or their relationship. And throughout the passage of his day Wood gives us glimpses of their relationship together in mini-flashbacks. But something has changed. At some point in the preceding days or weeks there has been a violent collision of ideas in Stephen’s head and he can’t seem to work out which of the ideas should have been given right of way.
Animal People walks us into the very heart of Stephen’s dilemma. To love or not to love. At times he seems ready to love, and Wood recounts his more intimate thoughts about Fiona beautifully – For the first time in his life he found himself wanting to live up to something – to meet her, to take this beautiful risk – and it made the wave of his need for her crest and break again, unashamed and glorious.
And yet, in the next moment, when life and love seems to require something he does not think he can give, Stephen turns from Fiona in his mind and determines not to make what he now thinks is a great mistake.
Animal People is certainly critical of the way many of us live and love, it was certainly critical of the way I live, but unlike many novels which find fault, this novel offers real and quite beautiful remedies, ones which I have already embraced.
Well, you’ve read this far. I think we’ve answered my earlier question. Who can I recommend Animal People to? The answer is – You.
So, let me end by saying – I really recommend that you read Animal People.