Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser

Tom Loxley is a divorced, childless, Jamesian scholar who is stalled at the end of writing his book. He takes his dog to a friend's cabin in the bush in order to find the inspiration to finish but on a long tramp with the dog, the dog runs away and doesn't return. Tom's sometimes frantic and sometimes desultory search for his lost dog then weaves in and out of the other plot threads, flashbacks all: his childhood in India and then Australia, his marriage and its ultimate failure, his sexually frustrated obsession with his artist friend Nelly Zhang, and (the only non-flashback) of his mother's aging diminishment.

There are a wealth of themes weaving throughout the tale. There's that of the immigrant and the outcast; there's familial duty and the inheritance of the past. Loss and redemption as well as desire and denial play their own enormous roles as the story builds to its climax. Despite the small action guiding the story, the search for the dog keeps the reader engaged and slightly tensed wanting an outcome even as Tom's life up until the loss of his dog unfolds slowly and with great deliberation reflecting the alternating hope and futility of the search itself.

The writing here is often times dense and rich in meaning with de Kretser showing her deftness with apt metaphors. Her descriptions are minute and startlingly accurate, a decided strength in a story with such an insubstantial plot driving the tale. If there's a weakness here, it's in the characters. Tom himself is hard to like, aimless and as stuck in his life as the conclusion of his scholarly research. Nelly Zhang is eccentric but stand-offish, even to the reader, exploiting her racial identity when it suits. And the long intervening amounts of text between when hints of mystery and understanding are dropped and when their threads are finally reintroduced into the story can induce a sense of frustration in a reader more accustomed to a straightforward writing style. But even with these considerations, it is clear that de Kretser is an accomplished and stylish writer. In the end, while I found it hard to sympathize or care for any of the characters, I wanted to know what happened to the dog, was impressed by the calibre of the prose, and amazed by the dexterity of keeping all the disparate plots going and ultimately interconnected. I look forward to reading de Kretser's other works.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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