I may be a little late to the party, but I’ve decided to make this very first ever blog post about the recent Perth Writers’ Festival. I happened upon a copy of Charlotte Wood’s Animal People in a bookshop shortly after buying a ticket to see her on the panel at Women of Letters. I bought it so I could be all equipped to at least know some of the work of one of the panelists, should I have the opportunity to talk knowledgeably while swilling fancy wine or somesuch.
I went along to see Germaine Greer’s opening address, had a few too many pale ales at the opening night party, and saw panels on blogging, politics and the media as well as Women of Letters. I was surprised to find that what I loved most about the weekend was the people I bumped into in between and after sessions. People I knew from years ao, from work or from twitter were milling around and for once Perth’s smallness didn’t seem claustrophobic but actually quite wonderful. Also, I blushed far too deeply upon having Annabel Crabb autograph a copy of her book The Rise of the Ruddbot for me. Nerd-crush engaged. I recommend the book, particularly in light of the ALP’s recent
disaster unrest. The faster the news cycle moves, the easier it is to forget the events of the past and how they led us to the present. Also, Crabb’s pretty damned funny, even when talking about Peter Costello.
But back to Women of Letters, which was rained out of the Sunken Gardens early in the piece. It was a relief to be moved to a nearby tent, the gardens were far too big a venue and the sound didn’t carry far enough. In the tent, though we were slightly damp, it was more intimate and the speakers didn’t have to compete with aircraft, rain and wind. I hope the organisers were paying attention to how the atmosphere changed and reconsidered their utterly mystifying decision to only put 10 or 20 odd chairs out.
Animal People is really a beautifully crafted piece, following the minutia of one day in a man’s life, Stephen a character from her earlier novel The Children (which I haven’t read). Stephen’s ultra-urban life is the backdrop for the interaction of humans with animals. He is not a cat-person, or a dog-person, he explains. He’s just not an animal-person. He works a fairly uninspiring job at the cafe at the zoo and watches the way people interact with the animals caged up there, desperate for the animals to notice them, as if the monkeys and birds and lizards owe them that. I especially loved Wood’s description of Stephen’s neighbourhood, an urban, slightly trashy area gradually being gentrified by designers and publicists that reminded me so much of where I live. Wood describes the resident oddballs wandering up the nighttime streets yelling things into the dark and she could be describing my own street.
“There were two populations in Norton – this world, of fiercely sucking smokers outside shops and pizza eaters over garbage bins, and then the others – the inner city vintage freelance crowd. […] They did Pilates and had blunt fringes, wore small rectangular glasses and Japanese-looking clothes so severely ugly you knew they were expensive. These were editors or radio producers or consultants who wrote policy on restorative justice. You heard them greeting each other in the mall; they rolled their eyes to cover the embarrassment of being discovered in the food court (they blamed their children); they always kissed each other hell0. They called their work my project. They were the kind of people who didn’t like to be thought wealthy even if they were – this was an inner-city phenomenon, unlike the beachside suburbs or Longley Point where Fiona lived, where being thought wealthy was the aim of the game.”
There were a few moments in the novel that snagged my mind. Why did Stephen get on a bus after hitting someone in his car, why didn’t he pick up the car afterwards, why does his allergy mysteriously disappear by the end of the novel? Maybe he didn’t really have an allergy? Who knows. But the subject matter is so poignant that it doesn’t really matter, Wood’s descriptions of her characters are so very recognisable, her observations are spot on. It’s about wealth and pecking order and otherness. It’s about love and understanding and putting oneself in another’s shoes. It is sad at the end but also blindly, fiercely hopeful. Immediately after finishing it I wanted to go back and start again.
Animal People by Charlotte Wood: 4 stars.
Read it if: you’re after expose rather than plot, you live in the city, you sometimes wonder how humanity manages to live with itself.
The Rise of the Ruddbot by Annabel Crabb: 3.5 stars.
Read it when: politics seems slightly baffling and childish, you’re after piecemeal observations on past political events, you don’t want the same dry, old speculations.