Albert of Adelaide, by Howard L. Anderson
Anthropomorphic animals are something of a rite of passage for developing readers. Of course books for young children depend heavily on them, and as we grow up we don’t necessarily lose the taste for them, hence the massive and enduring popularity of Watership Down (rabbits), William Horwood’s six Duncton books (moles) and of course The Wind in the Willows (a veritable menagerie of English wildlife). On that basis, a novel that bills itself as ‘The unlikely adventures of a duck-billed hero’ and boasts a pyromaniac wombat and a megalomaniac wallaby, among other Australian wildlife, was always going to be hard for me to resist.
Albert is a duck-billed platypus on the run from Adelaide Zoo. When we meet him he is trekking in to the Australian interior in search of “the other Australia”, a fabled place where animals can exist free from human interference and where he hopes he might carve out a new life. After nearly succumbing to a fierce sandstorm, Albert encounters Jack, a peripatetic wombat, who leads him to what passes for civilisation in those parts – a one-horse mining town inhabited by bandicoots, wallabies and kangaroos. It’s classic Wild West stuff, but soon they are on the run, and Albert’s wanderings make him more enemies – and make him another friend, in the form of TJ, an expat American racoon and aspiring bandit.
What starts out as a bit of a romp quickly acquires a darker, harder edge – the forces of ‘civilisation’, led by Albert’s new-found enemies, come looking for him and his friends, and the Dingoes, who at first seem sinister but are clearly emblematic of Australia’s aboriginal people and thus rapidly come to be seen in a sympathetic light, get caught up in the feud. Before long it’s war in the outback as the marsupials go hunting the Dingoes – and a shy, diffident platypus who doesn’t know his place in the world must rise to the occasion and fight for what is right.
Albert of Adelaide is an absolutely splendid novel that works on multiple levels – sure, it’s a parable about the fate of Australia’s first people, and about the impact of humans on the environment, but it’s also a bloody good yarn, told in beautifully crafted, dry and understated prose. While you’re reading it, you forget that it’s a story with a message, and you willingly suspend your disbelief, as you must for anthropomorphic animal tales to weave their magic, and will a poor, lost platypus on in his mission to help his friends and find the other Australia.