I left Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog for near the end of my Booker Prize longlist reading, as I’d been warned by others that it was a pretty knotty read, particularly at the beginning. The other features which distinguish it – how nice it is to try to form an opinion on a book before reading it – are that it’s the fifth book of the thirteen-strong longlist which is set wholly or partly in the Indian subcontinent (“The judges are pleased with the geographical balance of the longlist” – M. Portillo), and that boasts the oddest author photo of all the longlisted titles, in which de Kretser appears to be casting a spell. But did she – boom-tisch – cast a spell on this reader?
The lost dog of the title is a red herring, what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin, a mere springboard on which to launch a story equal parts dizzying and dazzling. We never even learn the dog’s name, but it belongs to Tom Loxley, and he will spend the rest of the book searching for it, and other things besides. Tom is a writer, trying to complete a book on Henry James, but through his personal connection with the artist Nelly Zhang, he is drowning in the world of visuals. He is frustrated that his only response to a painting is, How beautiful.
Pictures belong to the world of things. They cannot be contained in language. Tom was still susceptible to their immanent hostility. It had persuaded him, as a student, to concentrate on literature. There he was at home in the medium. For all their shifting play, narratives did not exceed his grasp. He paid them the tribute of lucid investigation and they unfolded before him.
This could be a shot across the bows from de Kretser: pay attention! – or alternatively a wink at what is to follow. Lucid investigation is both required and repelled by the early scenes in the book, where the reader is thrown into Tom’s world and left to sink or swim. Most of the book’s characters appear here, in choppy montages which give fair impressions of both the milieux – the Australian contemporary art scene; India in previous decades – and the characters – artists, their agents and hangers-on, and cantankerous family members.
What’s interesting about these scenes is that it’s their impressionistic nature which satisfies much more than longer, more immersive chapters would. The epigraph of the book, by James (he haunts the story) is “The whole of anything can never be told,” and it’s by not trying to to tell the whole that de Kretser succeeds in providing a rounded picture. The structure settles a little after a time, but the high-definition style remains, so that de Kretser can skewer a character with the greatest economy.
A glass-fronted cabinet held a harlequin, a corsair, a ballerina, a drummer boy, a Bo Peep with a crook wreathed in flowers and a lilac dress bunched up over a sprigged underskirt. Once a week Audrey murmured to small porcelain people of love while holding them face down in soapy water.
Audrey is Tom’s aunt, sister to his mother Iris, and one of the great monsters in the book. Tom’s struggles to deal with his elderly mother as she loses her independence provide the emotional anchor of the story, where again de Kretser shows that less is more, and that implication can be more powerful than detail. Audrey, who “disliking waste, never disposed of a grievance that had not been squeezed dry,” provides a counterpoint to this filial and familial tenderness.
‘Did you see my Berber? Ruined.’
‘If you could arrange steam-cleaning, I’d fix you up, of course.’
But that was too simple an outcome.
‘Well, if you think I didn’t do a good enough job on that carpet.’
As with Linda Grant in The Clothes on their Backs, there is a sense sometimes that de Kretser has cast her concerns too wide, so many multitudes does the book seem to contain. There is much here on the value of art as experience and artefact, best depicted by Nelly Zhang’s apparent practice of photographing her paintings and then destroying them. She inhabits “the modern age, the age of the image.” Her creation of images of images balances Tom’s writing about writing. Such dualities abound in the book, not least in the theme of differing interpretations of events and experiences. One thread concerns the identity of a figure a drunken man saw on a beach when Iris’s husband went missing. Another deals in how viewers approach paintings, and readers books: “Tom would have spoken of the formal qualities of Chekhov’s tale, its understated, almost offhand treatment of love, and evasive resolution. All this Nelly omitted or missed in favour of detail and implication.” Such a theme is doubly striking when reading a Booker longlisted book, and aware of all the interpretations which other readers – judges, bloggers, reviewers – have placed on it and how they differ from one’s own. Once again, Henry James seems to have something to say connected to this: “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete.”
One of the most striking things about The Lost Dog is de Kretser’s meticulous use of language, which can find the telling word with apparent ease (Nelly’s laugh is “disgraceful”; the drunk referred to earlier has an “unfastened” face), or overdo things somewhat and seem to strain for effect (“he was driven also to remark the ambiguities eddying her surface”). The book is bursting with de Kretser’s talent and ambition, and there is no doubt that this is one of the most interesting and rewarding titles on the Booker longlist. More than that, it will surely repay a second reading, which is no small feat in a list where many of the titles don’t repay a first.