Communication and observation are constant and encroaching for the populace in Bill Broun’s big, unnerving novel, Night of the Animals, set in a London of the future but uncomfortably close to our own time. Its climactic events take place in 2052. Broun’s hero, Cuthbert Handley, is an Indigent, capital “I,” a specific class in this layered society.

Cuthbert has a mission linked to the childhood death of his beloved older brother. Briefly but importantly, in the pursuit of that mission, he takes on the ability to talk with the animals of the zoo. The title’s “night of the animals” reflects that chaotic time frame.  Wire-cutters in hand, Cuthbert roams the zoo and animals are freed from their cages. The 7th Century St. Cuthbert, whom the hero surely was named for, is remembered for instituting special laws to protect sea birds and by St. Cuthbert’s Way, a walking trail described as “one of the most beautiful, varied and enjoyable long distance walking routes in Britain and one of Scotland’s Great Trails.” Echoes of Noah and the ark imbue what is a classic story of human searching. Cuthbert’s age – he’s 90 years old – resonates for today’s readers, who can expect longer lives than any generation previous.

Broun is an American-born journalist with ties to both the United States and Britain from his English father and American mother. This is his first novel, although he reports having written numerous short stories that can be found on the web although apparently unpublished in book form. Night of the Animals holds the reader’s attention partly through the characters’ language. Their speech  reflects “both fading and emerging dialects and slang” of various British locations, Broun tells us in an author’s note, “as well as future-set, speculative words and phrases along with common phrases from British English.” Broun, born in Los Angeles and on the faculty at East Stroudsburg University, Pennsylvania, clearly has an ear cocked to the speech of his ancestral country and recognizes the differences from English as evolved in the United States. This interest in language is one of the pleasures of the book; both people and language evolve as we read.

Night of the Animals is published by Harper Collins, 2016, 539 pages, hardback $33.50.

–Jane Durrell

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