This a Product Talk by Nuffnang post – I didn’t receive payment for this post but I did receive a free book to review. I love free stuff. I also received an extra copy to giveaway to one of my special readers. Keep reading to find out how!
I’m a big reader. I read every night, no matter how tired I am and quite often really regret it the next morning. But I can’t stop. Especially if I’m drawn in to a book and can’t put it down. I’ve been known to buy a book and finish it in the same day, much to Mr Monkey’s chagrin.
So, when I was given the opportunity to read and review Charlotte Wood’s new novel Animal People I definitely couldn’t pass it up.
Charlotte Wood is a fantastic Australian author, her novel The Children was shortlisted in the Australian Book Industry Awards 2008 category of Literary Fiction Book of the Year but all four of her novels have achieved critical acclaim.
A sharply observed 24-hour urban love story that follows Stephen Connolly – a character from Wood’s bestselling novel The Children – through one of the worst days of his life.
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.
As he makes his way through the pitiless city and the hours of a single day, Stephen must fend off his demanding family, endure another shift of his dead-end job at the zoo (and an excruciating workplace teambuilding event), face up to Fiona’s aggressive ex-husband and the hysteria of a children’s birthday party that goes terribly wrong.
As an ordinary day develops into an existential crisis, Stephen begins to understand – perhaps too late – that love is not a trap, and only he can free himself.
Hilarious, tender and heartbreaking, Animal People is a portrait of urban life, a meditation on the conflicted nature of human-animal relationships, and a masterpiece of storytelling.
I don’t think I can properly explain how much I loved this book. I really want to make sure this a great review but I don’t feel I can put my feelings in to proper words.
So I turn to the author herself, Charlotte Wood. Charlotte was kind enough to reply to me on Twitter and agree to answer a few questions over email:
1. You have written about Stephen in your previous novel “The Children”. What drew you back to him again?
Not until quite some time after I’d finished The Children did Stephen occur to me as a character – I knew the next book would be set in a city, and I wanted it to be a one-day book. But I kept being drawn back to thinking of Stephen, I think, because he was the only character in The Children I didn’t feel I completely understood by the time I finished writing that novel. He remained unresolved when I felt I knew the others inside out. And in a way – this will sound odd, for a person one has invented – I still worried about him. I wanted to see him through the next stage of his life, and I wanted him not to be so lonely.
2. Do you feel a connection to your characters? Are they living and breathing to you?
Yes and no – when I am in the moment of imagining them they are entirely ‘real’ to me, and as I’ve described above, I can carry them around in my head for long periods of time during which they feel quite real. It is very strange how fictional characters can sort of embed themselves in one’s consciousness almost as if they are real. I realised that I thought of Stephen, for example, as a kind of wayward cousin I’ve always loved, but who inexplicably finds life a bit of a struggle. But at the same time the characters are part of what I hope to make into a work of art, so at a certain point in the writing process one must detach and look at them from a craft point of view, in the context of storytelling, metaphor, their relationship to the wider themes of the book and so on. But of course I fervently want them to ‘feel real’ to my readers.
3. A major theme through the book is Stephen’s fascination with “animal people” and the way they interact with and anthropomorphise animals. On the surface it may seem that Stephen appears “abnormal” in his interactions with animals, yet I feel he appears to have more respect for animals then those that call themselves “animal people”; he hates the indignity that animals face when forced to be dressed in ridiculous jackets and rhinestoned leashes, he cannot bear to look at the photos of animals in distress shown to him by a charity worker and cannot understand why zoo patrons feel the need to believe that the animals are looking at them. Is this what you intended to show; that perhaps Stephen’s capacity for empathy and respect towards animals is greater than some so-called “animal people”?
I’m glad this question came up for you. I think he is respectful of animals, at the same time as he fears their unpredictability and, I suppose, the chaos that they represent. His fear of animals is a metaphor for fear of life’s messiness. But he’s also bewildered by ‘animal people’ and the double standards some seem to hold – e.g. a dog is to be adored but a ferret reviled, a cat can be cosseted but a homeless man is dirty vermin, etc. Stephen understands there is something he just doesn’t ‘get’ about animals. But in the end it is an animal that brings him face to face with the evasions and fears that threaten to destroy his life.
4. Living in Inner West myself, so many of your descriptions of people, life and public transport rang very, very true. (I think I even recognised one of the homeless men you described!) Are these from your personal experience? Are you much of a people watcher?
I think all good writers are close observers, and I wanted to write a portrait of city living with this book. Much of what is in the book came from real-life observation, but much of it is also invented, stretched, exaggerated and so on. I like Iris Murdoch’s idea that paying attention can be a moral act in itself – a book that was set in 24 hours allowed me to pay attention to small but (I think) revealing aspects of urban life, how we treat one another, how casually inhumane we can be as we go about our daily business. But I also wanted to do what Helen Garner describes as ‘preserving’ – setting down the kinds of moments and interactions between people that I feel are important but are so easily overlooked and lost …
5. You describe the differences between Stephen’s home town in the city and the leafy, affluent suburbs where his girlfriend lives. Was this to comment on the differences in living in the city/ suburbs or to allude to the differences in Stephen & Fiona’s personalities and therefore their “incompatibility”?
I think class differences in a city are quite interesting – how one can live supposedly side-by-side with others in the same place, but actually have absolutely nothing to do with them. This happens within Stephen’s grimy suburb as much as it happens between suburbs – he makes a distinction between the ‘inner city vintage freelance crowd’ (like me) and the real ‘working people’ of Norton. And then Fiona’s suburb is another world away again. Stephen’s observations of the different suburbs is as much about his disconnection from all society as anything else, but yes – he seizes on the affluence of Fiona’s home as one of the reasons he doesn’t belong with her. She, on the other hand, has never given a damn about these superficial differences between their lives that her family and Stephen himself are so preoccupied with. Stephen’s judgements of Fiona’s suburb and her affluence are a kind of reverse snobbery, but also a way of resisting the complex demands that seriously loving someone can make – and the rewards it brings.
6. You seem to be a dedicated user of social media – both on Twitter & Facebook. Have you found social media to help or hinder your writing process?
I don’t think it particularly helps the writing process, but I love it, Twitter especially. I love the conversations that are possible there – and I have also done the odd bit of crowdsourcing for research on Twitter! It’s fantastic that I can say, ‘who’s cleaned out a deep fryer – I need a detail for my book’ and get five cheery, helpful replies. I have found Twitter to be full of sharp, witty, lovely people who often link to online stuff of great depth and complexity, so the idea that Twitter is purely a forum for shallow trivia is nonsense. It is also a wonderful way to connect with readers, especially – I have had so many more contacts with readers of my books (like you!) because of social media, and I really love that. But it can be terribly addictive and I could be distracted for entire days by it if I let myself – so one has to be disciplined and switch off, especially when right in the writing process, which requires sinking deep into solitude and silence and drifty, dreamy thinking.
7. You have an excellent food blog – howtoshuckanoyster.com. Could you please share with us your favourite recipe?
Thank you! Hmmm – very hard to say, but what about this one, a summery quinoa salad. In the blog post from 2009 I say quinoa is hard to find but no longer – think it’s quite available in supermarkets now, if not every health food shop.
See? There’s no way I could put it better than that. All I can say is: “go out, buy this book, read it once, read it again. Enjoy it”. You can buy it here – from Booktopia as well as The Children and Charlotte’s two other novels.
But one of my lucky readers won’t need to buy it! I have a copy here to giveaway!!
All you have to do is be subscribed to my blog, either by email updates or the RSS feed and then leave me a comment below telling me if you are an animal person or not and what they means to you.
The competition closes next Friday 18th November at 6pm AEDT and I will announce the winner here. Competition only open to Australian residents. I will re-draw the prize if not contacted by the winner within 5 business days.