Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

Meanwhile, the world at large, England and beyond, grapples with its own demons. Night of the Animals posits a future in which:

  • Almost no wild animals live in their natural state. They’re confined to zoos, and even there most are not “natural-born” creatures but genomic clones. (Early on, the book suggests that children of the wealthy often keep miniature versions of these clones as playthings.)
  • Repressive governments are the norm world-wide, the population controlled by a hierarchy of quasi-military police forces. (England remains a monarchy, currently ruled by the idiosyncratically dangerous Henry IX — a/k/a, as the popular shorthand prefers, Harry9.)
  • Citizens have access to an Internet successor known as WikiNous. (The “Wiki” bit is obvious; less so, maybe, is the “Nous” — a philosophic term, meaning roughly the mind, or consciousness.) This access is not only instant but also involuntary — delivered via cubcutaneous implants, unable to be shut off; when not delivering information or entertainment, it floods the bearer’s consciousness with advertising. An ad-free version is available — if, predictably, you can afford the subscription.
  • For months, the sky has held a visible portent of onrushing disaster: a comet known as Urga-Rampos. The comet is not expected to hit the Earth, but its presence looms large, both literally and figuratively, in the minds of all the characters.
  • And finally, the coming of Urga-Rampos has led to a more terrestrial, manmade threat: the revival of a suicidal cult, called Heaven’s Gate. This cult — like its namesake of twenty years ago — fancies that its members’ souls are to be transported, with the comet’s passing, to a higher plane of existence. They will “die” here on Earth, but reawaken in a spaceship following along in Urga-Rampos’s wake. Credulous nuts? Maybe. But they’ve fine-tuned the original Heaven’s Gate’s principles in one ominous way: their own suicides will be preceded by the deaths of as many other people and animals (especially animals) as possible…

But then along comes Cuthbert Handley in the grip of Flōt withdrawal. And along comes a cast of secondary characters, inadvertently to his aid. Above all, along come the denizens of the London Zoo…

All of this is couched in prose by turns lyrical and — especially in flashbacks, and in Cuthbert’s own speech and thought patterns — plain, even folksy. We read of the long sleeving shadows of evening, of swifts circling the square belltower like hot, torn electrons. We encounter startling but just-so turns of description:

There was also someone new, a very short woman in a most improbable and campy sort of archaeologist’s getup, including a khaki jacket with cap-strap epaulets, a rugged twill skirt, and, of all things, a pith helmet. She wore a kind of brace on her arm made of shiny brass gears. She had a round face with creamy skin and large, mildly protruding blue eyes, with two pieces of copper tubing arcing from her helmet down into her jacket. These features, with her short thick neck, gave Astrid the slight impression of a mechanical female bullfrog. To top things off, she held a small white snake curled in her plump hand. She was a kind of steampunk hobbit.

And dialect, oh yes. Here’s Cuthbert’s gran of fifty years earlier, speaking of Britain’s animals and the casual disregard with which humans treated them:

“God gave ’em souls, and what did the English give ’em?” she’d once asked. “A slaughterhouse in every town—a bunch of clarty land, dorty seas, rivers turned into gubbon holes,* and thousands of book-learnt clish-clashers who say the bastes* are nothing but bondservants or jumbles of chemicals or whatnot. No wonder they went quate!”

(The words marked with asterisks have footnoted definitions; you’re on your own with the rest of it.)

All this commentary and all these examples from me are simply to say: The book is substantial. Over 500 pages long in printed form, several branching and converging plot lines; stylistically complex; atypically unheroic heroes; smudged genre lines… If you come to Night of the Animals expecting a breezy, weightlessly stereotypical science-fiction/fantasy tale, you will leave (probably before finishing) in disappointment — maybe even irritation, or outright anger.

But if you’re willing to give it the time it deserves, you will be rewarded with plenty of action, plenty of mystery (and answers)… and, at the last, plenty of heartache and hope.

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  1. Sounds like a must-read! On its way to my iPad as we speak (so to speak!)

    • Tessa, I’m glad you’re trying it out. As I was reading it myself, I kept thinking it reminded me of Michael Crummey’s Galore (which you recommended to me, and thanks again).

      Let me know what you think!

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