Reading the BSFA Awards: 2021- “The Animals in that Country” by Laura Jean McKay

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in that Country won the 2021 BSFA Award, but wasn’t on a shortlist for the Hugo, Nebula, or Locus for best novel. It’s another example of the BSFA Award giving a different look than the other major speculative fiction awards.

I was skeptical going in to this one, to be honest. Literary science fiction is very hit or miss for me, and often seems to suffer from the authors having a kind of disdain for “genre fiction” that shows up in weird ways in their works. The cover was kind of off-putting to me as well. The expression on the taxidermized (I learned a new word!) goat’s face is a weird mix of seriousness with maybe a hint of stern, while the young woman examining it looks confused and perhaps put off.

The contents of the novel itself doesn’t match any of these expectations. The story follows Jean, a grandma with an alcohol problem who works at an Australian zoo giving tours. She’s trying to take care of her granddaughter, Kimberly, while also navigating the expectations and hopes she has for her own life. If you told me based on the cover of this novel I’d be delighted by an extremely sardonic, liquor-downing grandma who gives wildlife tours for fun and enjoys the occasional sex on the side with another zookeeper, I’d have told you to your face that you’re a liar. But here we are.

Jean is a delightful narrative voice to read, even as she goes off on tangents about conspiracy theories she finds and immediately believes on Reddit and other sites and comments on current events like someone who’s gone deep down the rabbit hole of believing literally any conspiracy possible. I honestly still don’t know how McKay manages to make this work because all of this is a character I have a kind of aversion to on paper, but McKay makes her personable and even sympathetic. It’s probably the relentless dark humor that got to me. Jean doesn’t pull punches, and she just comments on things without a thought.

There’s a plot about a pandemic, too. I didn’t think I’d like that aspect, but the pandemic lets people understand animals, and vice versa. I saw some readers saying this made the story creepy and even “horror,” but I didn’t get that vibe at all. Maybe it’s because of Jean’s tone throughout the novel, or the interludes of biting flies attacking her and getting slaughtered by her hands before one finally gets into her ear and says something like “This is nice” because it’s warm and safe, but I never was even worried in the novel. It was just a comfort read, despite sometimes graphic awfulness.

The only complaint I have about the novel is the ending. It just felt extremely abrupt. Huge spoilers here, obviously: the government just zooms in, vaccinates everyone, and Jean can’t hear animals anymore, losing her connection to the dingo that she’d forged throughout the novel thus far. It’s so sudden and accompanied by the idea of “going back to normal.” I don’t really know what point is being made with it. It just… ends.

The Animals in that Country is a great read that once again has a very different feel from other major speculative fiction award nominees. I enjoyed it immensely, though I’m still kinda bummed about the ending.

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