Michael Shamanov’s mother is dying. Dogs, John Hughes’ first novel since Miles Franklin was shortlisted Anybody, opens with the arrival of Michael to visit him in the retirement home in which she has lived for two years. “For reasons that don’t do me any credit,” Michael tells us, he hasn’t seen her since she was admitted and left her there. Michael is a successful screenwriter and makes a very cerebral narrator. The narrative unfolds slowly, with frequent discussions of art, history, memory, and metaphor.
Although the prose was hardly sparse, I nevertheless felt that something was hidden. It’s not that Michael is incapable of self-reflection (he sometimes engages in torn self-criticism) but we learn just as much from gaps and elisions. Phrases like “I never liked the theater. Sitting in the crowded darkness watching adult men and women try to make you forget the fact that they pretend to be other adult men and women seem to tell us about something deeper than the theater.
Although she quickly succumbs to dementia, Michael wants to reclaim as much of his mother’s childhood story as there is. It’s quite a story; daughter of a Russian prince and an Italian opera singer, she met Michael’s father, with whom she initially shared no common language, and emigrated after the war. It’s also a story, as Michael will learn, with a dark secret at its center.
These elements form the core of the novel, but there are other common threads as well: Michael’s relationship with his ex-wife Sarah and son Leo and his burgeoning romance with his mother’s caregiver, Catherine. The story jumps between Sydney, Newcastle and the Gold Coast while the memories of her mother and the history of her parents take her even further: Paris, Venice and Moscow.
Of this intricate tapestry, only Michael’s relationship with Catherine put my credulity to the test. Catherine fulfills a necessary narrative function by bridging the gap formed by the two years Michael spent avoiding his mother. Maybe also the otherwise elusive Michael needs someone to dig into those parts of his psyche he’d rather ignore. But Catherine is otherwise a slightly flat character, despite her own dark secret. It is not clear what she sees in Michael and I couldn’t quite understand their relationship.
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The ambition of the novel is colossal, one of the many ways in which it reminded me of that of Patrick White Eye of the storm. It’s a novel that deals with the big questions of life and death, but it impressed me just as much with its treatment of the mundane and the ordinary. While the large number of Michael’s Asides slows down the narrative disproportionately, at its best, the prose is magnificent. Those who know Sydney might read phrases like “Darling Street inundated with beams of light, tangy with the breath of snarling, bodyless creatures, all with shining, blinding eyes.” The city singing to itself in rattling gears, slow-mo bass chords, horns syncope, street cleaner timpani and recognize the truth of an experience they previously didn’t think was possible to reduce in words.
Dogs by John Hughes
Release date: 2021
List Price: $ 27.99