The Lost Dog
In her previous novel, The Hamilton Case, Michelle de Kretser made use of the conventional tale of an unsolved murder case in 1930s Ceylon to provide a rich and detailed family and colonial history. Her new book also takes a mystery - a missing pet - to set up a complex layered story that crosses continents and follows trails down the generations.
The novel opens on a wet Tuesday in November with Tom Loxley's sudden sickened realisation that his dog has run off into the bush. We follow the hunt to find him for more than a week; eight days without the animal's comforting presence are carefully marked off as chapter divisions. While the details of the search and its effect on Tom's daily life fill the foreground, the narrative slides between the recent and the distant past, taking in the story of Tom's parents' mixed-race marriage in India, their settling in Australia in the early 1970s, his own recently dissolved marriage and, most important, his involvement with a Chinese-Australian artist and photographer, the mysterious Nelly Zhang. The expeditions into the bush to find the dog have a parallel in Tom's earlier journeys of discovery in a new country, his struggles with the book he is writing and the bits and pieces of information he is fed about Nelly and the group of artists she lives with in a converted textile mill called the Preserve. Always an outside observer, Tom slowly constructs his own view of the facts he learns, which include questions of parentage, deceit, money, disappearance and even murder. The constant worrying problem of how he can cope with his 82-year-old, ailing, incontinent mother is another puzzle he must solve.
De Kretser's dramatically compressed narratives move from vivid scene-setting and imagist description to passages of recollection and meditation. Her eye for colour brings into focus both the bright present and the more softly lit past. While sounds and especially smells, such as Nelly's “spoor of spice and sweat”, the tang of the bush, the stench of human excrement, intrude in the present, the past is often conveyed through nebulous images of objects and artefacts: a single surviving cup from a tea set, “bold red dragons on a shell-pink ground”, a wooden pencil case with a picture of snowy mountains on the lid, an empty Coca-Cola bottle proudly displayed in an Indian house. These items, which are always steadily remembered, are part of the presiding metaphor of clutter that runs through the novel. Advertising ephemera, the artists' found objects, the tasteless bric-a-brac decorating a sitting room and the detritus of Australia's post-industrial streets mirror the confusion of Tom's thoughts, as he “picks over the rubble of his marriage”, recites verses from the well-stocked attic of his mind, or gets lost in the trackless landscape of the bush. In Nelly's aesthetic, even the most banal, manufactured item can hold a strange beauty.
Scattered throughout the book are brief dramas or anecdotes, involving a variety of odd and often funny characters. These include Tom's ungenerous Aunt Audrey and the local farmer Mick Corrigan, a master of pessimism (“Yeah, I reckon this wallaby would've kicked your dog's brains out for sure, mate”). The fatuous corporate behaviour of Tom's university colleagues and the slightly poseurish nature of the artists and hangers-on at the Preserve are slyly conveyed. Against this are the novel's many fruitful observations on art and imitation: the subject of Tom's book is Henry James, whose writings Tom comes to imagine as “a massive stooped figure, its progress along the passage of time impeded by a dragging shadow”. Nelly's fierce judgment on a fellow artist is, “Competency: it's the enemy of art.”
Many modern novels make thematic use of art, photography and Henry James; and many deploy the device of moving between past and present to tell a multilayered story. But few writers make them so naturally part of the story as they are here, and even fewer have de Kretser's confident, meticulous plotting, her strong imagination and her precise, evocative prose. Like The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog opens up rich vistas with its central idea and introduces the reader to a world beyond its fictional frontiers.
This review first appeared in The Sunday Times.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008