Albert is a duck-billed platypus who escapes from a zoo in Adelaide and heads out into the Australian outback to find the mythical “Old Australia” – a Promised Land “where things haven’t changed and Australia is like it used to be”. Old Australia, he believes, is a paradise without humans, where he will be free to live with his kind alongside a peaceful river like the one where he was born.
Sadly, the Old Australia Albert finds is an arid, unwelcoming landscape, and most of the animals who live there are small-minded and prejudiced against him, having never seen a platypus before. He finds a friend in a pyromaniacal wombat named Jack, but Jack’s friendship turns out to be a mixed blessing that leads to Albert becoming a wanted criminal.
He flees across the outback, forced to learn the necessities of survival very quickly – finding food and water, making money, and shooting to kill when he needs to. His journey is one of self-discovery, devoted friendships and violent rivalries. It’s an atypical western and nothing like you’d expect from a book full of animals wearing clothes.
The publisher, Twelve, publishes only twelve books a year and seeks out “the singular book, by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority”. Albert of Adelaide is is certainly unique (or at least rare) when taking into account all its elements: it’s a western set in Australia, most of the characters are animals indigenous to Australia, and there isn’t a single human character. Notably, there isn’t a single female character either, although this detracts from its interest rather than adding to it.
I wouldn’t call it fantasy, but you could perhaps call it magical realism, although it’s one of those books that defies categorisation altogether. The animals talk, think and behave as humans do, but there’s no explanation for how this is possible. There’s also no scene in which a human and an animal interact, allowing us to compare the two. It’s like Albert follows a railway line into the desert and becomes a different animal, in a different world. Mind you, there’s no point thinking too hard about the how of this; you just have to accept it for what it is.
It does make me wonder why the author chose to use animals though. They behave almost exactly as humans do, and as humans would in a western – they drink alcohol, mine, work for money, run stores, gamble, use guns, wear clothes, carry backpacks. There are no horses, but then again it wouldn’t make sense for other animals to ride them.
You can’t even think of them as literal animals, as the author doesn’t give much practical consideration to their animal nature or their bodies. How does a platypus survive trekking across the desert? How does it wield a gun in its paws or drink water from a canteen with that big, wide bill? There are only a few occasions when they do specifically animal things, like when Albert goes swimming and eats the crawfish and grubs he finds in the water. For the most part, you’ll just have to throw the logic out the window and accept the animals as they are. If that would bother you, then don’t even think about reading this.
Frankly, I think you could make all the characters human and the story could stay the same with only a few minor adjustments (e.g.. Albert is a boy who escapes from an orphanage to find the vaguely remembered paradise of his birth). The one notable thing about having animal characters is that they’re endearing; the story would have been more ordinary and less likeable if the characters were humans.
Mind you, this is definitely not a story for children, and for several reasons. It’s not cute. It’s full of longing and melancholy that an adult could relate to but that would bore younger readers. It’s also very violent and tragic, as befits a western. Animals get shot, torn apart, eaten. Normally I wouldn’t be able to handle this level of animal violence, but because they have this unusual status as ‘human animals’, it’s not so bad. Still, a kid might be horrified.
I also enjoyed Albert’s journey from one hateful world to another. His time at the zoo was a nightmare – being caged, stared at, taunted. Now at least he’s free, but he’s also in a hell of a lot more danger. He makes steadfast friends, but has to deal with so much prejudice. He’s chasing his dream but has to kill and steal and fight to do it. Naturally, Albert changes and learns a lot over the course of the story. However, he keeps going with a kind of quiet determination that I found very likeable. Even in some really disturbing situations, Albert keeps a cool head that I found reassuring.
So, overall, Albert of Adelaide was nice enough. Not great, not bad. It could be quite slow in parts as Albert plods through the desert or goes about the business of getting supplies, but the pace picks up in some very dire situations. His enemies tend to be particularly vile, which I hate, but the friendships are heartwarming. I don’t know who I’d recommend this book to really, but it’s a good one to keep in mind if you take part in reading challenges (like if you have to read a book where the main character is an animal, but you don’t want to read a kid’s book). At the very least, I think you’ll find it memorable.