Cuthbert Handley can talk to animals. At least, he thinks he can.
Cuthbert is the main character of Night of the Animals, a sweeping and lyrical new novel by Bill Broun. In this postmodern Noah’s Ark story, it’s 2052, and Cuthbert — a 90-year-old homeless man — lives in a Britain that has outlawed the Parliament, revived the monarchy, and left the EU (prescient, since the book was written well before Brexit).
The world is overrun by Heaven’s Gate-like suicide cults that are killing themselves off in waves, with each cultist taking a dozen animals along with them. Cuthbert becomes convinced that the London Zoo, the home of the only living members of several endangered species, is their next target. So to save the animals, he decides to set them free. To do so, he’ll have to battle with the deadly Red Watch — the king’s private police force — in addition to his well-meaning doctor and his own myriad addictions and hallucinations.
The Night of the Animals revolves around mourning for the English forest
Cuthbert is named for St. Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northern England who prayed in the freezing waters of the North Sea and was dried by otters when he emerged. Fittingly, the otters of the London Zoo are the animals Cuthbert cares for most: He’s obsessed with finding the Christ of the Otters, the animal messiah his grandmother used to tell him about.
Cuthbert’s memories of his grandmother keep coming back to him as he makes his way through the zoo — accompanied by memories of the Wyre Forest near her home. It’s the forest that keeps motivating him, really.
Night of the Animals is a kind of elegy for the idea of the English forest as a place of refuge from the rest of the world. The idea of escaping to the greenwood is entrenched in English literature and mythology, from the legend of Robin Hood to Shakespeare’s fairy-ridden forests: It’s a place where you can live out your deepest Jungian urges, where, like the characters of As You Like It, you can “fleet the time carelessly / as they did in the golden world.”
Or, as the more modern characters of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem put it, “What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?” It’s for drinking and sex and drugs, and for thinking uncivilized thoughts. Cuthbert misses it deeply.
In 2052, the closest thing there is to the English forest is the London Zoo. That’s where the wild parts of the world have ended up, and as Cuthbert sets the animals free, he isn’t only trying to protect them. He’s also trying to unleash their wildness into his own painfully domesticated existence.
And as he the animals of the zoo head out into the world, The Night of the Animals becomes progressively wilder itself. The novel shifts its tone as it goes: As we begin, and the animals are all in their cages, the tone seems light, easy, and simple to understand. But as the animals escape, the register starts to heighten, until you’re not entirely certain how much of what you’re reading is literal, and how much of it is Cuthbert’s hallucination in its full flower.
The book seamlessly transitions from dystopian satire to psychological melodrama to pure pulp (and back again)
As Cuthbert enters the zoo, we’re in a light satirical dystopia: There’s some gentle mockery of Cuthbert’s populist jingoism, a little parody of Britain’s entrenched class system and love for aristocracy, a little exaggeration of the Western obsession and identification with technology. It’s all very Super Sad True Love Story.
And then, as Cuthbert digs into his work, we find ourselves in a dark, immersive, psychological portrait. We learn about Cuthbert’s formative childhood traumas, about his squandered talents, his dead brother, his history of dissociation. His belief that he can talk to animals is, it seems clear, a hallucination on his part. It’s all like the section of The Corrections where that guy hallucinates that a turd is talking.
Finally, as animals begin to escape the zoo and wreak havoc on London, we enter a realm of pure pulp. Cuthbert’s Doctor Doolittle powers begin to seem more and more real. The Christ of the Otters shows up. Cults infiltrate the government. We find out that Prince Harry killed his older brother William and is now ruling England with an iron fist. Aliens arrive. Strangers turn out to be long-lost relatives. A lady turns into a tree. Prince Harry — now Harry9 — has a death ray that bends the very fabric of time. It’s all presented very matter-of-factly: Yes, of course there are aliens. What kind of book did you think you were reading?
Then the animals are recaptured. And just as suddenly, the chaos subsides and all the conventions of pulp fade away. Those long-lost relatives turn out not to be genetically related after all. The animals stop talking. The aliens disappear.
Are we meant to understand that it all literally happened — that there were aliens and talking animals and ladies turning into trees? Or was it all in Cuthbert’s addled brain?
It’s not clear, but the richness of the ambiguity just adds to the book’s sense of sweeping melancholy. What Cuthbert wants, more than anything, is to return to the English forest of legend, and for just one night, it might have happened. Or then again, it might not have.
The Night of the Animals is a stunner of a book: thoughtful and elegiac, with long, lyrical sentences, and a tricky structure that will keep you guessing. It’s worth your time.