Between harvest, shearing, edits for Purple Roads and writing Silver Gums, I’m thoroughly enjoying reading Charlotte Wood’s new Book, Animal People. It’s the topic for my talk with Barry Nicholls on ABC radio next week – I hope you enjoy her blog post.
ALTHOUGH I’ve lived in the city for more than twenty-five years, I still feel like a country girl.
I grew up in the town of Cooma in NSW. While my family were “townies”, I spent many weekends of my high school and early post-school years hanging round the paddocks on my friends’ sheep and cattle grazing properties. My first job was as a cadet reporter on the local paper, where a typical day might take in a morning at the cattle saleyards, a chilly hour in the abattoir while the hoof and hook competition was judged, and a trip out of town to photograph a fancy new shearing shed or discuss an ambitious artificial insemination cattle breeding program.
In my early 20s I left town to study at a regional university, then eventually made my way to the big smoke, through various jobs and homes until I figured out that writing fiction was what I needed to do with my life. I met my husband around the time I finished my first novel, and everything fell into place: despite being so far from home, I had made a new one.
The cattle sales and sheepdog trials seem a long way behind me now, and rural life is a long way from the particularly urban anxiety explored in my new novel, Animal People. In this book my protagonist Stephen spends a single day making his way through the grime and heat and frustration of the pitiless city in which he lives.
At the start of the novel, Stephen has decided it’s time to break up with his girlfriend, Fiona. He’s 39, aimless and unfulfilled, and without a clue how to make his life better. All he has are his instincts – and they might be his downfall. As he pushes through the hours of this stifling city day, Stephen must fend off his demanding family, endure another shift of his dead-end job at the zoo (including 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. It’s an ordinary day, but one that becomes life-changing for Stephen as he is forced to face up to his fear of the messy and difficult demands of love.
I’m only realising now that I chose the single-day timeframe partly in order to write about the minutiae of city living, because it meant I could linger on details that would be lost in a larger sweep of time. And I also realised that it’s my having grown up in the country that makes city living still, after all this time, seem so comically absurd to me, and sometimes so brutal.
Stephen is a country boy too, so I was able to give him all of my misgivings and confusions about city living. Stephen’s bewilderment with much of urban life – including the deeply conflicted nature of our relationships with animals, from the elevation of pets to human status with ‘doggy cafes’ and shops selling Swarovski crystal-studded jewellery for cats, all while we happily visit zoos and eat meat – is my own. But the city itself is also a kind of human zoo. On his way to work Stephen is confronted by a drug-addicted pedestrian running into the traffic, an activist who wants him to look at photos of animal torture and then, on the bus, he sits next to a mentally ill man who terrifies him despite Stephen’s knowing the man is completely harmless. Stephen remembers back to when he moved away from his home town, Rundle (which featured in my previous novel, The Children), in his late teens:
When he was young and first came to the city, this daily witnessing of insanity – and of cruelty – shocked Stephen, and frightened him. In Rundle, it seemed, madnesses and cruelties were private affairs, if they existed, but here in the city each day brought some public hostility; each day you saw one human being degraded by another. You got used to it. If it was not directed at you, you learned to cast your eyes down and walk on by. If it was, you did the same thing but faster ….
…But Stephen never grew accustomed to it, the same way he never got used to the rain. A country boy grown up with drought-dust, whose lungs had never had to tolerate the smell of mildew, at 39 he was still awed by the torrential rainstorms that dumped down upon the city, the days and days of rain, the skies staying dark day-long, the soft fur of mould growing over your leather shoes in your wardrobe. And he still flinched if he heard swearing in the street – even schoolgirls did it, shouting out ‘f*ck’ and ‘p*ssy’ and other shocking things. Stephen had no problem with conversational swearing, but each time he heard a curse bellowed in the street he had to stop himself looking guiltily around, in case one of his mother’s friends or the Rundle Rotary Club vice-president might hear.
One of the most gratifying reviews of the novel describes Stephen, despite his lack of bravery, as a person of integrity – he can’t enter into what he sees as the falseness and hypocrisy of contemporary society. But this integrity is also his problem, because it leaves him isolated.
Perhaps it’s romantic of me (and in this book Stephen certainly romanticises Rundle, a place for which he has previously had nothing but disdain), but I like to think perhaps it’s his country-boy background that lends him some of this integrity, that allows Stephen to remain shocked by the city’s inhumanity even after twenty years in the city. I like to think it’s his simple Rundle childhood that lets him remain a kind of innocent, even when he’s too old, and has no excuse for innocence anymore.
I think I’m leaving the city for a while now – in fiction, if not in life. My next novel is glimmering in my head, and it’s set in an imaginary place in the bush. All I know so far is an image from an Arthur Boyd landscape: leaning eucalypts, scrubby paddock grasses, and a dark green billabong. I can’t wait to find out where it is, and spend some time hanging around those paddocks in my head.