Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 22, 2011

Dog Boy (2009), by Eva Hornung, read by Bruce Kerr

The Prime Minister’s Literary Award has only been in existence for three years, but already it’s showing a preference for an international focus. Steven Conte’s The Zookeeper’s War which won the inaugural award was set in Berlin during WW2, and in 2009 Nam Le’s collection of short stories entitled The Boat had international settings.   Dog Boy is the story of a small boy abandoned for reasons unexplained in Moscow, and in order to survive he bonds with a pack of dogs and learns to live the way they do, as a dog.  It’s a sharp reminder of TV footage we’ve all seen, of the ‘losers’ that emerged from the ruins of Soviet communism when the economy collapsed: homeless, hungry people, shambling through the snow with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and not enough clothes to keep them warm…

Astonishingly, these homeless people  included countless children who had to fend for themselves as well, and while Dog Boy draws on the mythology of the Wild-Child and the legend of Romulus and Remus, sadly, it’s based on the  true story of Ivan Mishukov.  I can’t imagine our society breaking down to the extent of parents abandoning their children to fend for themselves on the streets; it’s an absence of human feeling that’s beyond my comprehension.

Hornung has created a convincing world for little Romochka to live in, but you need a high tolerance for the details of doggy life.  Stray dogs eat and do all kinds of disgusting things, and Hornung doesn’t spare any details about how filthy and smelly they are.  These dogs and the little boy who bonds with them are not fastidious about eating dead things covered in blood,  about excretory functions nor about sleeping arrangements, and when they act from animal instinct, it’s hard not to feel revulsion.   Even more disgusting is the way humans react, first to the dogs, and then to their discovery of a boy among them.

So although it’s quite clever the way Hornung has used keen observations of doggy behaviour to show how Romochka gains a place in the pack hierarchy because his human skills make up for the absence of some dog skills (such as scenting when hunting), it’s not what I would call enjoyable reading.  Too many chewed-over frozen corpses for me, and I found the story of  the abandoned child harrowing and unpleasant.

Read it at your peril. Sue at Whispering Gums sees merits more than I do!

Dog BoyAuthor: Eva Hornung
Title: Dog Boy
Narrated by Bruce Kerr
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio 2009
ISBN: 9781742123097
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Oh dear, Lisa, perhaps I have a stronger stomach than yours – or maybe reading it is better than listening to it but I thought this was a wonderful book.It certainly has its “earthy” bits, but I like the way Hornung (Sallis) doesn’t shy from the hard stuff. I think she deals with some “meaty” (sorry if that’s too close to the bone – !!) issues. I reviewed it back in June, so you probably don’t remember it but would love your comments now that you’ve read/heard it.

    PS I like your point about the international bent in the PM’s prize.


    • Bother! I hunted around for a review to balance my less-than-enthusiastic thoughts but I didn’t find yours. It showed up when I (just now) searched your blog but not in a Google search – did you tag it?
      I had lots of other reservations about this book (which are the subject of soap-box oratory in our ANZLL discussions LOL) but I didn’t want to go there for this review – I couldn’t be bothered if truth be told. (It’s not really just that it’s often unpleasant to read; I’m a better reader than that and I don’t dismiss books just because I don’t like their subject matter or characters). Like you, I’m more interested in why Hornung wrote this story this way with these authorial choices, but my conclusions are different to yours. I think she’s judgemental about another culture in Dog Boy…

      It was not what Romochka did at the last that was revolting, it was the character who thought, ‘Wouldn’t it have been better if…’ IMO the author is portraying this character’s attitude as emblematic of the nation. Wouldn’t it be better if all these people not coping with the transition to looking out for themselves just froze to death in the Russian winter so that
      they were not a problem for the rest of us.

      The difference between others writing passionate books in disguise as a wake-up call to the indifferent Other, and this one, is
      that this one IMO just seems to ‘sit in judgement’ on the newly ‘free’ Russians for letting it all happen. It is they, not the dogs, who are wild; it is they who do not take care of the pack, and there is no redemption.


  2. Thanks Lisa. I guess I don’t tag my posts with as many points as I think you do — partly because I’m not sure exactly what tags do. My post comes up on page 4 of Google if you search hornung dog boy review. I wonder if a specific tag would have got it higher? Every time I search on the value of tags in terms of Google/search engines I get nothing useful. Have you found anything that says otherwise? Consequently, my categories and tags tend to be more general rather than specific … I’d love more info on this. People seem to find my blog on all sorts of words that occur in the post themselves so I’m just not sure how much value tagging and categorising adds (beyond internal site navigation).

    Anyhow, onto the book. Thanks for clarifying your views … Your comment response clarifies your view a bit more for me. It’s so long since I read the book that I can’t respond in detail but my recollection is that I didn’t see it as being about the Russian culture at all – I really did see it as being spurred by something that perchance happened in Russia but was about something far more universal – that is, humanity, and what makes us humane/human or not. I found that really fascinating.


    • I’m no expert on tagging either, Sue, but I do routinely tag my posts with the name of the book and (separately) with the name of the author, and I always name my posts by the name of the book and author too. The tagging is what makes it show up in search engines, and the naming is helpful for subscribers who get an email for every new post I do. If I name the post specifically then they know without having to go to the site if they are interested or not.
      I guess we have to agree to disagree about Dog Boy – clearly the judges saw something in it that made them give the award to this novel, but I still find it a disappointing choice considering the calibre of the other shortlisted books.


  3. Yes, like you I always title my literary reviews with the author and title – for search engines and subscribers – but I’m still not convinced about tagging. People find my reviews without that specific tagging — and some posts will appear first or second on Google without the tags. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tags increase the likelihood of being found earlier/higher up, but I don’t think they are essential. The best I have read so far is that frequency/repetition of terms/words helps and of course tags increase this don’t they? I’ll keep searching on this and one day Ill find the definitive answer!

    LOL re disagreeing. I was thrilled when it won, because it hadn’t won others that it had been shortlisted for! C’est la vie eh? How boring it would be if we all loved all the same books all the time. I have read one other of hers, and have another on my TBR – I think it’s a pretty confronting one too but just haven’t found an opportunity to read it yet.


  4. […] you skip this and check out what notable Australian bookbloggers Whispering Gums (positive) and AnzLitLovers (not convinced) have written about Dog […]


  5. […] I wasn’t very keen on  Dog Boy (which won the 2010 Prime Minister’s Award, so I was well-and-truly out of step there!) […]


  6. […] collection of short stories, The Boat is the only one I haven’t reviewed.  (Update: see here and here, […]


  7. […] What these three novels have in common is that they feature animals with language.  Mammoth is narrated by an extinct mammoth; The Octopus and I is about a woman who develops an affinity with an octopus, and The Animals in That Country features a flu which has as a side effect that humans can understand animals.  Pulling this off in novels for adults is no easy task but it’s been done before e.g. by Eva Sallis in Dog Boy. […]


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