My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I finished this book some time ago, but I wanted to let it settle before writing anything about it, not sure if I loved it or thought it was just OK.
Now that my reading is almost solely limited to bedtime (the lack of a public transportation commute has robbed me of about 2 hours of solid reading 5 days a week), I feel that I often don’t give books a fair shake. When I read, I’m tired and apt to dismiss a book faster because of my weariness than I would if I were reading it while feeling fresher. It never occurred to me though to toss this one as a victim of the “50-page rule,” as I did with the two books I picked up subsequent to it. But until now, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it.
Generally I look for three main characteristics in a great book: a plot that pulls me through the pages; characters I know I’ll miss, as lost friends, once the book ends; and skillful writing that uses images and other literary techniques that are surprising, thought-provoking, and/or beautiful in some way. “The Lost Dog” doesn’t have much in the way of plot. There is a dog that’s gone missing, and the main character does spend some time searching for it. But that’s not what the book is about. This is a pondering book. The characters are observed as they ponder various scenes from their lives, or actual tangible objects, like Nelly’s collection of glass eyes or the neon sign of the girl jumping rope that occupies Tom. We learn a tremendous amount about the characters from the things and events they focus on and how they come to view those things and events over time. But the action is slow, and the plot almost nonexistent.
As far as the characters go, I didn’t develop any real affection for or attachment to Tom, Nelly, Iris or any of the other more minor characters. They were placed under de Kretser’s microscope to be studied, and real academic study requires detachment.
But the writing is beautiful. Here’s an extended example of what I mean by this:
“There was a girl who had been around at parties and clubs when Tom was twenty. She was no older, but seemed stereoscopic: she had starred in a film that had won a prize; her face, smilingly assured below a rakish hat, gazed out from billboards. Then she vanished, summoned by Berlin or LA, and Tom forgot her, until the day, years later, when he and his wife bought a pair of sheets in a department store. On the down escalator, Karen said, ‘You didn’t notice, did you? That was Jo Hutton who served us.’
For days, Tom was unable to evict her from his thoughts, the saleswoman he had barely noticed as she bleated of thread counts; within minutes of turning away, he would have failed to recognize her if she had materialized before him. While the transaction was being processed, he had grumbled casually to his wife about the time their train had spent in the Jolimont shunting yards before delivering them to Flinders Street Station. The saleswoman looked up: ‘The exact same thing happened to me this morning. Doesn’t it drive you mad?’ Then she confided that this was her last day at the city store: she had been transferred to a branch in the suburbs. ‘I live a five-minute drive away. I can’t wait to be shot of public transport.’ She handed Tom a pen and a credit card slip and shook the two gold bangles on her wrist as he signed: a small, unconscious expression of glee at her victory over time and the railways.
Tom tried to picture the girl in the tilted fedora pausing long enough to fret about train timetables but found the challenge too strenuous.
Now, sitting with Nelly in the drafty kitchen, he thought it was an error to equate authenticity with even tones. Existence was inseparable from tragedy and adventure, horror and romance; realism’s quiet hue derived from a blend of dramatic elements, as a child pressing together bright strands of plasticine creates a drab sphere.”
I’m tempted to read this book again, with full knowledge of the plot and character interactions, just so I can focus on the writing. When I’m in bed and half an hour away from turning the lights off, my ability to appreciate and enjoy great writing is stunted. And this book deserves clearer focus, because the writer has delivered some truly wonderful writing.