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Review of Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Stray dogs in Moscow. by akk_rus
Stray dogs in Moscow., a photo by akk_rus on Flickr

Australian writer Eva Hornung based her latest novel on a newspaper article she read about a homeless Russian boy who had been brought up for some years by feral dogs. According to one of the characters in her novel there are five million homeless children living on the streets of Moscow (a quick trawl of the internet reveals a number that may be anywhere between one and five million).

Four-year-old Romochka is abandoned in a high-rise flat by his “uncle”, his mother’s whereabouts unknown. After four days of waiting for the uncle to return, Romochka ventures tentatively out into the street to find food or companionship, with his mother’s admonishments not to talk to strangers still ringing in his head. Almost immediately he sees a dog and follows it with curiosity – and increasing desperation -amid the freezing temperatures. The dog, aware it is being followed, leads Romochka to a disused cellar on the outskirts of the city, near a rubbish mountain. The child curls up with the bitch, Mamochka, for the night for warmth, unafraid to share her milk with the rest of the litter. Look away if you are squeamish as Romochka soon embeds himself with the eight-member feral dog family, hunting with them, sleeping alongside them and sharing the same food – whatever it may be. Perhaps due to his young age, he quickly he identifies himself as a dog and it isn’t until he sees himself in a mirror in the course of a house break-in a couple of years later that he realises he is a boy, and a very scruffy, alarming-looking one at that. (Interestingly enough he forgets this episode within days, re-identifying himself as a dog). When his dog mother adopts another human baby he is at first very jealous but eventually hugely protective of his “brother”.

Hornung’s prose has a haunting quality, with touching, sensuous details of Romochka’s dog mother and the fierce love he has for his dog siblings; the family dynamics as complicated as any human’s. Dog Boy pulls no punches, however, with its moments of raw violence when the pack, desperately hungry, intimidate the elderly or young children and rob them of their groceries. In another episode a pack of what we assume must be wolves or “Strangers” attack the feral dogs in their lair and are duly dispatched, their skulls later hoarded and kept as a shrine. There is an air of menace throughout the novel: the reader all too aware that the boy’s way of life cannot continue. But Romochka’s sense of survival is extraordinary and moving.The final sections of the novel detail the medical and psychiatric involvement in the young boy’s case. I felt this was the weakest section of the story; it seemed to dissolve quickly into cliché, particularly when it came to the relationship between the two scientists involved. I preferred instead the vivid, earlier descriptions of Romochka’s existence as a dog boy and his various schemes to make money and food for his canine family, including his misguided trip on the Metro (with one dog sibling in tow) which lead to his incarceration for a week.

This minor criticism aside, this was a compelling and, despite its often gruesome subject matter, an ultimately uplifting read, that will ensure you will never think the same way again about homeless children nor your family pet.

Eva Hornung won the 2010 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction for Dog Boy. She is a human rights activist, and co-founder of the organisation Australians Against Racism. Dog Boy has been published across the English-speaking territories, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy.

[Blogger’s own copy, Vintage pb, £7.99]

I saw Evie at a bar in Peckham once- it’s the sort of place where people often share tables. She was talking to her companion about writing and an upcoming radio interview. When she left the bar I asked her friend (and fellow Goldsmiths’ classmate) if she was famous and he said, “she will be”. We had a quick chat about writing and I made a note of her name. This was the middle of last year, I think, and he, of course, was right. Evie is the recipient of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and she was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers among others.

I guess I was intrigued by Evie not only because of the coincidence that day but also as she’s half Australian. I wanted to see what she would write about- and, given that she grew up on both continents, whether her version of Australia would differ from my own (having not arrived in the UK until I was 28). It’s narcissistic I know but there are so many reasons one wants to read a particular book aren’t there?

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice is the story of three generations of the Collard men. Two out of three men served in the war- the young Leon in Vietnam, his father in Korea.  The latter is a baker, who having emigrated with his wife from Holland, teaches his son from a young age to fashion the sugar figurines for wedding cakes.

Out of Leon’s paws came a crumbling mess, a mix of nose and hat, of shoe and skin that ran together from the heat of his palms, blending grey in the middle. Out of his father’s hands a tiny sculpture, a person in a pleated dress, with a nose like a blade, grasping her wedding handkerchief, thin as a leaf, perfectly able to stand on her own two feet.

Leon’s mother is a shadowy figure, the woman who calls him “chicken” and takes epic-long baths in the evenings when her husband goes off to war.

In the next weeks, Leon would come across his mother staring into the open refrigerator, hanging there as though something unexpected had been put inside, the eggs replaced with light bulbs.

Of course, when his father returns from Korea he is altered and an adolescent Leon is left in charge of the bakery while his parents sort out the chaos of their lives. Then of course, he is off to fight his own war in Vietnam.

But this is primarily the story of Frank, Leon’s only son. Set in the present, the novel begins with Frank’s flight to a seldom-used family holiday shack, a move precipitated by a relationship collapse in the city. His days are spent fishing and working on the wharf and also befriending a neighbouring family who are haunted by their own ghosts.

… and the man beamed with brilliant white teeth. He had the look of a young boy dropped into a grown man’s body. The skin of his face was salt-rubbed, his eyes red and bright from the sun.

As we read on we see some of the issues from Frank’s past- the reasons for his fierce independence and his violent tendencies. And when another girl goes missing in the small town that Frank has fled to,  we feel somehow that Frank is involved.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. The prose is exquisite and the characterisation impeccable. I was moved to tears at times (and not just because I’m homesick!).

Evie has managed to create a thing of beauty out of the ugliness of our everyday lives. Lives hidden behind the picket fences, verandahs and shopfronts. Out of the violence and pain and squalor she fashions a story of hope and grace. Unforgettable.

For a taste of Evie’s writing, here is an autobiographical account of a childhood illness written recently for the Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jun/27/evie-wyld-once-upon-a-life-toddler-coma-nightmare

[Reviewer’s own copy]

I follow quite a few “book people” on Twitter and there has been a lot of chatter about this title over the past few months. Sometimes that can really put me off a book (or a film for that matter) but I succumbed eventually and bought my own copy.

The subject matter is necessarily bleak: depressive father takes his life aboard his fishing boat,  ‘”his boots slathered with the dark blood of freshly caught salmon.” Jim Fenn is survived by his ex-wife, his son Roy and daughter Tracy. It is Roy’s story that resonates throughout the novel as he fleshes out the events leading up to his father’s death and the aftermath. But this is no linear narrative and in fact, it was only when I came to the middle section of the “novel” I remembered that it is a collection of short stories about the same events told by the two protagonists. And no it isn’t that simple! Suffice to say that Vann plays around with his unreliable narrators, time sequences and so on. The ‘Sukkwan Island’ sequence is at the novel’s core and its tale of father and son surviving for months on end on an uninhabited island with limited resources is harrowing and relentless in its bleakness. But somehow there is beauty and a startling wisdom about depression and neuroses and loneliness.  Vann’s characters are selfish and damaged in the main but they are also remarkably real and the language can be beautiful:

“I touched these hides, also, forgotten by my father but watching him, feeling a child’s portion of regret, desire, longing, my father’s longing. If only a life could be bent into the shape of another’s, momentum diminished.”

and

“Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as if this were what he had felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there.”

and finally:

“Memories are infinitely richer than their origins, I discovered; to travel back can only estrange one even from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or a self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that.”

Overall it’s a difficult book to describe but it left me aching but somehow satisfied and grateful to have read it. It is certainly the type of novel that gets quickly under your skin and becomes compulsive!

Read David Vann’s short story writing tips here.

Review of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap

I met Christos years ago while studying the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT in Melbourne. It was a very brief chat while I waited to introduce him as a guest reader at La Mama, but he was incredibly supportive of new and emerging writers and so unassuming.

I’d heard about The Slap on the Melbourne-London grapevine: friends were Twittering about it and others were castigating the novel on their Facebook pages, saying it was “self-indulgent” and ”stereotyped”…; that it contained “appalling depictions of women”- oh it got ruder than that. Of course I had to read something that provoked such vitriol and having loved Loaded, I persuaded a good friend of mine to bring Tsiolkas’s newest novel back from Oz*. (Thank God for jetsetter friends!)

tsiolkas

The book tells of the fallout of a man slapping a child who is unrelated to him at a suburban Melbourne BBQ . It’s a fantastic ‘what if’ scenario for a writer but I wonder if Tsiolkas was slightly over-ambitious telling this from eight points of view. Hector is hosting the BBQ with his wife, Aisha; the ‘slapper’ if you like is Hector’s cousin, Harry. When you add in the element of the younger 20-something generation present at the BBQ (some of the novel’s richest material in the characters of Connie and Richie) and consider that one of them is having an affair with Hector, things get interesting and messy and interesting again-even without the slap and its ramifications. Rosie is the slapped child’s mother, an earth mother-type still breastfeeding her four-year old boy. One of her oldest friends is Anouk, an early 40s TV scriptwriter who is caught between the reactions of Aisha and Rosie.  Manolis is Hector’s father and his story adds a fresh layer from the older generation, in this case a late 60s Greek-Australian man looking back over all the long years and wondering. His depiction is moving and thought-provoking. Unfortunately Anouk’s characterisation is the weakest for me and yes perhaps does verge on the ‘career woman’ stereotype, but I can forgive because this novel is still raw, angry and utterly compelling.

Loaded was about sex and drugs and music. The sex in his latest novel is at times soft porn (as a friend pointed out, none of the characters make love) but the (adolescent) drug-taking doesn’t take the preachy soap opera line, it merely adds an element for example to an already joyous day for the young characters in the final chapter.

I’m not a mother so perhaps if I were this novel would rile me too. I do think it is rare to find writing that is so passionate and so persistent- even having finished it several weeks ago. Tsiolkas said at the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival that The Slap‘s largely unlikeable characters were products of the Howard era and who can argue? Yes perhaps he goes a bit too far with the insights into the darker thoughts of his characters but he dares to bring them, and thus our own cruelties and prejudices, to light and I for one, can’t argue with that.

*For UK readers, according to Amazon, The Slap is scheduled for release by Penguin UK in March 2010

Many thanks to AG for bringing this back from Oz for me to review.

My motivations for reading this slim novel were hardly intellectual I must admit. Having momentarily put aside Shantaram due to its imposing length, I was wanting a slim book for my commute and my handbag. Also, my Dad bought this for me as he has been studying German for a while now and is keen that I share his enthusiasm. There was a time 15 years ago when I would’ve read this in the original German but of course and sadly I am no longer fluent so the English version is a compromise.

Werther

The novel takes the form of letters from the aforementioned Werther to what we presume is a close relative or friend, Wilhelm. Werther has been sent to another German city to sort out a relative’s will and there he meets the cause of his ultimate sorrow, Charlotte (Lotte). He falls quickly in love with her, and although she is betrothed to another, she is warm and generous with her time- a perfect “angel” and “charming creature”. Our Werther, while encouraged to seek employment as an ambassador’s assistant, becomes increasingly obsessed with the object of his affections and is eventually tortured by her beauty and good character.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is a document of one man’s struggle with unrequited love and the tribulations of late adolescence.In terms of my own reaction, I became exasperated with the overblown language and the hyperbole:

I could lead the best, the happiest life if I wasn’t a fool.

and

What a child one is! How one so craves a glance! What a child one is!

Later still, he is woebegone and cannot stop himself from visiting her and mooning over her, even now she is married:

Sometimes I don’t understand how another can love her, is allowed to love her, since I love her so completely myself, so intensely, so fully, grasp nothing, know nothing, have nothing but her!

We sense early on that things cannot end well and Werther’s social position make him even more vulnerable. He moves quickly from self-pity to morbid self-deception.

While some of the language is beautiful and memorable, I had little patience for Werther’s predicament and the exalted state in which he wrote many of his letters. Perhaps I am out of practice with so-called classical novels- although I was never a huge fan of Austen or James (shock and horror!) but was happy to read Charlotte Bronte or Dickens.

Despite my reservations and prejudices, this is an unusual and haunting read.

*The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Blogger’s own copy

I’ve been on a recent sabbatical from work and the three-week stretch gave me all sorts of ideas, including this blog. I wanted a place where I could write reviews and discuss books generally as well as unleashing some of my photography onto the world. Later, will come fiction and stuff like that- once I channel Julia Cameron (from Artist’s Way fame) and re-connect with my muse!

On the more practical side, I thought I would read Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram over the break as it’s 950 pages and thus hardly the perfect book for the London commute. Unfortunately I haven’t finished it yet, so here’s a review of Marilynne Robinson’s Home in the meantime…

I was eager to read this- partly because it won this year’s Orange Prize for FictionHome_260709

but also because it got such rave reviews everywhere. We all know that’s not a guarantee of an outstanding read but still (Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country is a perfect case in point- reviews were full of hyperbole, I was very underwhelmed).

I really did have some trouble getting into this novel initially- say the first 100 pages. Nothing much seemed to be happening and some of the language felt laboured. I was trying to get a handle on the narrator, Glory Boughton, who had returned to the family home to escape a love affair gone bad and to nurse her poorly minister father. Fortunately once the family’s “prodigal son”, Jack Boughton, returned to the family home after a 20-year absence my interest was piqued and the narrative pace picked up considerably. I guess it’s the old ‘introduce some form of conflict’ idea but hey it worked because then I found this to be an absorbing, enthralling and emotional read.

Robinson’s language is very precise and she maps the emotional landscape beautifully. The nuances of (mis)communication between family members and their idiosyncrasies and verbal tics were also very vivid. I was drawn into the relatively small world of the family home and the town of Gilead where Glory and her siblings grew up. In the end this is not just Glory’s story: Jack’s attempts to remake his life and recover from alcoholism and a failed relationship seemed doomed from the start, even in his own eyes:

“I do the damndest things and there’s no help for it” and

“I create a kind of displacement around myself as I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble. This is a mystery, I believe.”

As for their father, who has struggled with his son’s aloofness and criminal past for many years, he says one night to his son:

Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It’s all grace. If you accepted that, you might be able to relax a little.”

The three of them have many theological discussions which could become tiresome but Robinson’s characters are intellectually agile and articulate and these are stimulating discussions. Their father is ailing but still manages fierceness at times and of course he remains bewildered by Jack’s sudden return and long absence. Cleverly, Robinson omits the other four siblings from the action entirely, adding Teddy the eldest brother to the mix only at the novel’s very end.

This novel is still resonating with me weeks afterwards and I hope to read some of her other novels soon such as Gilead (told from the neighbouring Reverend Ames’s perspective, or Housekeeping.

*Home by Marilynne Robinson, Blogger’s own copy

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