Stephen is a fine name – in fact, an extremely fine name. It is derived from the Greek ‘Stephanos’, meaning ‘wreath’ or ‘crown’. Some have interpreted this to mean ‘kingly’, but a more appropriate ‘translation‘ would possibly be ‘encompassing’, just as a wreath encompasses the head. In Ancient Greece a wreath was traditionally presented as a reward for victors in contests such as the original Olympics – these being certainly more pure back then than the travesty they are today! As a name Stephen first appeared in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, with St Stephen a martyr of significance in Christian history. Back in the Middle Ages the name was actually pronounced Step-hen. Its shortened form ‘Steve’ first came accepted in the mid 1800s. Stephen reached its zenith of popularity in the United States in 1951. 1951 was a sensational year for Stephens. After that it began a long decline that continues to this day. In the UK in 1954 it was the nation’s third most popular name – today, there, it doesn’t even rank in the top 100. There has only been one King Stephen of the English (1135 – 1154) – he did such a mediocre job there’s never been another. He embroiled the nation in a long civil war fighting sis Matilda for the right to reign. Much of his time was spent plotting for his son Eustace to succeed him, no doubt hoping for a long line of Stephens and Eustaces – obviously it never happened. There have been a few more King Stephens in European countries. The name also did better at the Vatican with nine Stephens as Pope. Stephen VI was a particularly ghastly character who oversaw one of the grisliest events in papal history. This Stephen had his predeccessor Formosus’ rotting nine-month-old corpse dug up, redressed in his papal vestments and seated on the throne so he could be tried. Somehow the corpse hadn’t built much of a defence, and Formosus was found guilty of what were likely bogus charges. As punishment, three of Formosus’ fingers were cut off (the three fingers on the right hand used to give blessings). The corpse was then stripped of his sacred vestments, dressed as a layman, dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber River — where he was finally able to rest in peace. It’s a wonder any Stephens followed him. There have been many more Stephens famed in recent times for worthier reasons, but drop the appellation into Google and it takes a while to find any other than ‘King’ and ‘Jobs’.
Charlotte Wood’s Stephen, as he appears in ‘Animal People,’ was no luminary like King or Jobs. He was more akin to the kingly Stephen – that is, significantly mediocre. He didn’t deserve the love of his Fiona and knew it, feeling he was a square peg in a round hole – not so much with her and her girls, but certainly with her extended family, her ex and her friends. For this sequel of sorts to ‘The Children’, Ms Wood takes the ‘day in the life’ approach, accomplishing that hard ask reasonably successfully. It certainly is an eventful twenty four hours for our anti-hero. The time span is made up of encounters with all sorts of the weird and wonderful. There are deranged neighbours and their pets. There’s the spaced out junkie he manages to run over on his way to work. There’s Russell, his best mate and possibly Wood’s best creation, who betrays him in the end. Then there are the accursed professional development gurus – oh so familiar to me after forty years of excruciating team building PDs. The one our Steve is forced to partake of certainly takes the cake though. Thank She above that I have never had to participate in a ‘Coyote Canyon’ in cowboy gear. It is also the day of Fiona’s precocious daughter’s birthday. Stephen is quite fond of both her offspring and very fond of Fiona. – and go figure, Fiona is also very fond of him! Oh, this is also the day he decides to split with Fiona.
At times I felt I was in Moodyland – as in the tele series; at other times it smacked of ‘The Slap’ – ripper pun, eh! As for its time frame, it is not as successful a novel as Gail Jones’ excellent ‘Five Bells’ – too much occurred for it to be remotely believable. Nobody, with the slightest iota of common sense, could have had such an ogre of a day as the one Steve tried to bat away with grog – with unfortunate consequences.
The book speeds along at a fair crack and I was engaged until the very last page, if not enraptured. I am coming to dislike overly truncated endings. As with several I have read of late, I needed a slower denouement, or at least an epilogue, so I could stay with Mr Mediocrity just a little while longer. As with Tsiolkas ‘ masterpiece there were some truly odious characters, with Wood milking them for all she was worth – Belinda and Richard come to mind. And I do trust that Balzac survives.
It’s a thumbs up from me.
Charlotte Wood’s website = https://www.charlottewood.com.au/