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Night of the Animals


Night of the Animals

Bill Broun's NIGHT OF THE ANIMALS is a unique Noah's Ark for the Margaret Atwood crowd. Spanning the late 1960s into the mid-21st century, the novel traverses time, memory and space but primarily inhabits London in 2052. It centers on the London Zoo, but reaches across cultures, dialects, values and species to create an original, immersive and inspired spin on a familiar biblical tale. 

Cuthbert Handley is a rather unlikely but deeply likable protagonist. He is an accelerated imagining of an unreliable narrator. Not only is Cuthbert a nonagenarian --- in this technologically advanced London, medical care prolongs life in believable measure, though it certainly can't save the dying --- he's hopelessly addicted to Flot, Broun's half-sedative, half-hallucinogenic, murderously addictive pop drug. The Flot disguises the failings of Cuthbert's body and mind, leaving the reader to wonder just as much as Cuthbert himself about which of the novel's fantastic experiences are lived, and which are exacerbated by the drug. Either way, Broun emphasizes, it's real for Cuthbert. Cuthbert is also mentally ill. It's unclear whether Broun is evoking schizophrenia, dissociative disorder, or some drug-accelerated blend of the two, but Cuthbert's reality is very much his own, for the most part, which makes for very compelling and unique storytelling. 

"I was indeed swept up in Broun’s insightful writing, which pulls absolutely no punches. His visions of violence in the future read as cautionary, but not heavy-handed. He absolutely nailed down his tone, and it works for every character."

When Cuthbert was a young boy, his grandmother told him that he possessed the Wonderments, the ability to communicate with animals. She says this gift passed through their family, and will manifest for him and his older brother, Drystan. But when they're still children, lost in their boyish intimacy and the wild English forests Broun evokes half-magically, Drystan suffers a terrible, unresolvable accident. Too young to fully process this unimaginable, abrupt loss, Cuthbert quite literally loses himself in grief. For the rest of his life, through mental illness, parental abuse and the encompassing allure of advanced recreational drugs, Cuthbert alternately believes himself to be Drystan, or that he must find what already has been lost.

When he believes he hears the others in the zoo speaking to him, it brings him to that fateful day in the forest. He becomes assured that the end of days is coming and his brother will return through the otters --- if only he sets them free. This sets forth a series of events in the London Zoo at once mesmerizing and painful. Broun's almost too-prescient near future involves violent policing, instant communication, suicide cults and massacred animals…and the drugged-out, desperate, aged soul attempting to find his brother may end up trying to save the world in the process.

We also meet a young constable with a painful recovering Flot addiction and a peculiar connection to Cuthbert, and a well-meaning doctor battling his own demons. The novel is rife with not only biblical imagery, but resonances of spirituality across cultures. Broun pleasantly surprised me by envisioning a potential future that believably incorporated multiple races and sexualities, with sensitivity and awareness afforded to all.

I ached for every character in this book, including the animals. There were times when I did feel that Broun became lost in his own vision, and I lost track of the spirit of the novel due to the alternating details. Yet this is unquestionably a masterpiece in its own right, and other readers may have far more patience than I. I was indeed swept up in Broun’s insightful writing, which pulls absolutely no punches. His visions of violence in the future read as cautionary, but not heavy-handed. He absolutely nailed down his tone, and it works for every character.

I was initially drawn to this book for the imagery of a modern ark. I loved the idea of an old, drug-ridden, mentally ill messiah trying to salvage animal innocents from society gone wrong --- only to discover, perhaps, the savagery and ambivalence of the animal kingdom. Broun more than delivers. Though I thought some moments were not quite as compelling as others, NIGHT OF THE ANIMALS is a valuable read that is clearly the product of great wondering and great love, and it shows.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on July 22, 2016

Night of the Animals
by Bill Broun

  • Publication Date: April 25, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Futuristic
  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062400800
  • ISBN-13: 9780062400802