The final scenes of my December feature read, Animal People by Charlotte Wood, seem especially appropriate at this time of year.

The book's excruciating finale centres around a child's birthday party, but it's the kind of scene that could play out at any office Christmas do or awkward family gathering.

At the party, the accumulated tension of a single calamitous day in the life of fast-food attendant Stephen finally reaches boiling point. It's a masterful sequence stuffed with politics, strategic alliances, snide remarks, misinterpretations, secrets and keeping-up appearances. It was a bit like watching a thriller film; I could hardly bear to look, yet I couldn't put the book down.

Animal People is the stand-alone sequel to Wood's bestselling novel The Children, which centred on Stephen's war correspondent sister Mandy. It's a book made up of small moments, the kinds of things that could happen on any ordinary day in a city - in this case, Sydney. A difficult conversation between Stephen and his mother, an awkward confrontation with a charity worker outside the shopping mall, an accident, an unattended package on a bus, a painful team-building day for his job at the zoo kiosk.


These incidents require snap decisions that Stephen replays over and over again throughout the day, as he tries to figure out how to dump his girlfriend, Fiona. Quite why he wants to dump her is not clear even to him, other than a vague feeling of wanting to be free, and a definite desire to get in first. Self-esteem is not Stephen's strong point.

Stephen is clueless and self-sabotaging and there are times I wanted to throw the book at the wall and (like his sister, Cathy) tell him to get it together. Yet his hopelessness is woven together with comic threads, such as his frustration that his trousers are constantly mistaken for chef's pants and his failure to pack a change of clothes on the day he has to clean out the deep fryer at work before attending the party.

Wood is an astute observer of human behaviour and cleverly contrasts the treatment of the homeless person or the junkie on the street with the personification of animals. Stephen is not an animal lover, and he is astounded by the pet shop with its 'tushie wipes' and doggy sweatshirts, by the canine café where dogs perch at tables to wolf down organic pasta and juice, and by the behaviour of patrons at the zoo.

"Saving animals from extinction was of little interest to zoo visitors, he pointed out [to Fiona], unlike the gift shops and the food court, crammed with punters buying plush synthetic animals made in China or eating chips fried in palm oil which they ate while staring into the eyes of the orangutan whose native habitat had been destroyed for the expansion of palm oil plantations."

If the book sounds dark or preachy, it is most certainly not. I laughed aloud at Wood's witty portraits of recognisable urban characters, like corporate dad in his weekend uniform of cargo shorts, leather flip flops and aviator glasses, the reluctant birthday party fairy, or Belinda, the pharmacist-turned-naturopath-turned-entrepreneur who is obsessed with toxicity of the body but unaware of her toxic behaviour.

Animal People is compelling if at times uncomfortable reading, as Wood turns her exacting eye on the harsh realities of life in a big city. It is a brilliant satire on modern urban life. Highly recommended.