THE ANIMALS IN THAT COUNTRY
By Laura Jean McKay (Scribe, $30 - available as an eBook)
Reviewed by: Ruth Spencer
"The vodka in the wrapped hipflask chimes like Merry Christmas." It sounds like a line of an Australian Crawl song, something to bellow-sing when you're sad-drunk in the pub. Layers of meaning to unpack but there's another stubbie open and the chorus is coming up. Outback poetry, too bleak to be cloying, too funny to be twee.
It's Jean's voice and her vodka. On her ice-cream coloured electric bus at an Australia Zoo-style wildlife park, she's our guide through the park and this gripping book. The tourists bend eagerly over the rail of the dingo enclosure, "a row of sweat-cracks". Jean loves her granddaughter Kimberley, booze, smokes and her favourite dingo, Sue.
On the news – how very timely - a superflu epidemic down south and spreading. Reports say that when the fever recedes you can understand what animals are saying. Jean, who already does "voices" for the animals to make the tourists laugh, thinks that sounds alright, actually. Until she gets sick. Jean's grit and wry humour makes her a huge presence but it's the enigmatic dingo Sue that steals the show. Jean and Sue form an uneasy alliance, negotiating their new relationship as they hit the road South.
Apart from Jean, the human characters become slightly vague as Zooflu takes over. Early central figures drift off to commune with nature, and Jean's several men all seem to be the same fat, flaccid, bumless bloke. Everyone has a type, maybe. The post-flu world is a fever dream – in fact, the author partly wrote the book in the delirium of Chikungunya fever, inflicted by an Asian Tiger mosquito. She's also an animal behaviour expert, a fact that will have you looking askance at the cat for a while. The animals and their precarious little lives become more real than the peripheral humans, their voices upsetting.
Comparisons between Zooflu and COVID-19, with its possible origins in live-animal markets, are inevitable and this book feels incredibly prescient. Zooflu is a plague brought upon humans by exploitation and carelessness towards the natural world. Now, even if that world can't fight back, we have to hear what it thinks of us. Somehow that's worse.
By Naoise Dolan (Hachette New Zealand, $38)
Reviewed by Hannah Tunnicliffe
I feared I might not be young enough for this modern love story. Ava, an English language teacher newly arrived in Hong Kong from Ireland, is wrapped up in not-a-relationship with Julian, an aloof, wealthy, too-cool banker. Julian lets Ava live rent-free in his fancy apartment in exchange for intellectual banter, honesty and sex. Sometimes she even packs his bags or polishes his shoes for him.
It's a far cry from Ava's cockroach-ridden shared-flat but can she bear the guilt of living so dependently; so transactionally? Julian and his expatriate friends form a well-educated, ambitious and moneyed elite and Ava falls for Julian's clever sarcasm and emotional unavailability. But when Julian leaves for London on an extended work trip, Ava has his apartment, her tangled thoughts and Hong Kong all to herself.
Enter Edith – the third side of the love triangle. Clever, enigmatic but warmer than disinterested Julian, Edith is asking for an emotional commitment Ava may not be able to give. Dolan's writing is observant, dryly funny and uncluttered; her characters are young, unapologetic, driven and slightly terrified (as most of us are in our twenties) - living lives of great freedom whilst trapped in confusion and longing.
They are simultaneously trying to live bigger, brighter lives than their parents whilst still calling home for advice and comfort. Exciting Times is made up of the characters' sharp conversations, text messages and phone calls as well as Ava's ruthlessly frank internal dialogue which is astute and sometimes biting. Decades past my twenties I wondered if I could warm to Dolan's cast and modern setting but found myself gripped to find out: who will Ava choose and who will choose Ava? Fans of smart, stylish love stories will enjoy this tale of modern romance and self-discovery set in flashy, fast-paced Hong Kong which, through Ava, asks the question we never grow out of: "What do I really want?"
WHAT SORT OF MAN
by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, $30)
Reviewed by David Hill
In a perfect, or even a reasonably just world, Breton Dukes could afford to live as a fulltime writer. In this less benevolent universe, he has to work in a government call centre. Let's hope it's not Healthline.
Here's his third short story collection: nine narratives, some substantial in length (up to 8000 words); all substantial in impact. They mostly involve hard-scrabble lives: "Vanessa had left high school. Kid was just out of prison" evoked with compassion but without condescension.
Existence is drab and often desperate. Hash oil in a grotty flat; a frayed day out with a borrowed car and dirty nappies; pokies or Ritalin addiction; a brutal ambush to grab a parcel of takeaways are among the scenarios. Some are first person, some third, some a blend of both, where meanings shift and slither. A dad flooded with love segues back to his 15-year-old, tormented youth, then to his days as a witness of savage deaths, before commitment rules again.
Protagonists are mostly men with third-rate lives . They're scarred, imperfect yet yearning, taciturn but emotionally tumultuous. They can take devotion to the point of destruction. Violence flickers and flares. One man starts to hurl his boss across a roaring public bar; another takes an appalling step above a zoo enclosure. Boys play rugby with lethal focus on Takapuna Beach. Two gruesome oldies thrash through a swimming pool in a welter of spray and memories that may prove terminal.
Yet the same men can be transfigured by love for their sons. That's one of the motifs that makes Dukes' stories so exceptional. And endearingly personal, sometimes; you hear the voice of an enchanted yet fearful new(ish) father in the wings
"I don't want to tell everything," the author has written. The reader can join dots, decode implications. It's a restraint conveyed partly through spare, meticulous writing. Cadences and conversations are subdued, laconic, yet jitter with tension. Breakfast Milo and toast encapsulate a life. Silences and understatements become half-comprehended epiphanies. Read the utterly astonishing sequence with a trapped hawk where salvation means "to turn and keep going."
Years can pass between Breton Dukes' collection but, my goodness, they are worth the wait.