If The Lost Dog hadn’t come to me from one of my favorite sources, I would have faltered in the early pages. The first sentence reads, “Afterward, Tom would remember paddocks stroked with light.” That set off all kinds of alarm bells: weird tenses, literary (“stroked?”) diction, oblique storytelling… not the way to win me over. Even though Henry James was mentioned in the next paragraph. But then a few pages later, the protagonist Tom Loxley is looking at a painting and thinks about the fact that pictures “cannot be contained in language. Tom was still susceptible to their immanent hostility.”
OK, that hooked me. Whatever else this book was, it was full of interesting ideas. But I do have this tiny quirk: I want fiction to be about human beings I can believe in. And for all her fractured, occasionally annoying technique, Michelle de Kretser creates a cast of complex, interesting characters. Tom Loxley, raised in India as a child, emigrated to Australia with his mother after his father’s death. Nelly Zhang, the painter, creates beautiful objects and has a mysterious past that is revealed a morsel at a time. Tom’s mother Iris, 85, is both an anchor and a liability to him, never a source of pleasure, but sometimes a prompt for grace. And then there’s the dog.
We’re in Melbourne in 2001 and Tom’s dog has gone missing in the bush. When you unfold and flatten out the narrative, the story takes place over the course of a week, with extensive flashbacks. The suspense — and it’s amazingly effective — concerns whether or not Tom will find his dog. Simple, eh? And it works, even if the dog is Something Else. Wholeness, maybe, or generosity. Tom is bewitched by Nelly, who is cagey. He is preoccupied by his aging mother, who lives alone but probably shouldn’t.
It’s very structured, formal; Tom is a professor, who writes on Henry James. Nelly, as an artist, deals with images. At one point Tom perceives the dichotomy, feels left behind in the decaying world of words. James is very much present, both in Tom’s writing on him and in de Kretser’s fondness for the ambiguous. Characters are constantly seeing things they misunderstand, and little is ever resolved. There’s also a huge preoccupation with time, memory, modernity. For instance, as an artist Nelly shows and sells photographs of paintings that she has made and then destroyed. (This device just about blew my mind: single/multiple, original/reproduction, made by hand/mechanical: really clever. Walter Benjamin would have had a field day.) But Nelly’s paintings are beautiful. And Tom longs for his dog — the human always dominates. It’s a remarkable book.