Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 18, 2016

A Loving, Faithful Animal, by Josephine Rowe #BookReview

A loving faithful animalIt takes a special kind of crazy-brave to write a novel about domestic violence that makes the reader feel sympathy for the perpetrators, and it takes a remarkable level of skill to create one that I am interested in reading.  But as I predicted when I read Josephine Rowe’s short story collection Tarcutta Wake  (see my review) this debut novel fulfils the promise of arresting characterisation.   A loving, faithful animal is a multifaceted dissection of dysfunctional family life with unexpected moments of humour and a keen perception of Australian larrikinism as it plays out among young people in Australian country life.  It’s a very good novel indeed.

The novel begins at the approach of New Year 1992, in the wake of that great family festival, Christmas.   Ev (Evelyn) insists on the annual ritual of de-Christmasing of the house lest leaving the decorations up bring bad luck.  Her adolescent daughter Lani doesn’t think their luck could get any worse, but younger sister Ru (Ruby) isn’t complaining. In a novel which offers the perspective of all the members of this fractured, damaged family, it’s her point-of-view we hear first:

I don’t know why we even bothered, Lani says, only for you to hear, as you climb down from a chair to take charge of the ornaments.

She’s right.  Apart from the bike, Christmas was the same tired cracker jokes and picking at a cold Safeway chook while the TV murmured to itself disconsolately in the lounge.  Lengths of red and gold tinsel wound round the antenna only made things worse.

But you keep your mouth shut.  Let them scrap it out.  Let them go at each other like cats, if that’s what they want.  As soon as you finish tucking the old mercury-glass Father Christmases into their crumbling styrofoam coffins, the day will be your own.  (p.3-4)

The bike has been restored by Uncle Tetch, younger than Ru’s absent father and missing the index fingers of both hands since he cut them off to avoid the Vietnam draft.

Can’t pull a trigger without a trigger finger.  Most people think that the finger thing must mean he’s a coward, but your mother said she didn’t know what kind of coward would whip his own fingers off with a bandsaw or what-have-you.  But his birthday hadn’t even come up in the ballot, so who knows what he was thinking.  (p.4)

But Ru’s father Jack is a Vietnam Vet.  Tetch, on a mission to find Jack’s passport in the footlocker hidden away for years, unwilling yet ready to help his brother escape his demons, muses over a hint of Agent Orange damage:

He’d heard it said – of men their father’s age, of men from other wars – how so-and-so never made it back.  Not to mean that so-and-so had died over there, or even that he’d left pieces of himself behind in the gangrenous pits dug by makeshift hospitals.  Rather that a different man had come back in so-and-so’s place, riding in his body and speaking in his voice, but staring out through the mask of his face as if with a different set of eyes.

Not so with his brother.  Jack had come back home as himself but with the war in him like some dormant, cancerlike sickness, busy at some cellular level.  Perhaps blooming there in the soft tissue the whole time, all the while they were tipping back schooners at the longest bar in the world, only ever giving itself away in the smallest of actions; in the clench of his jaw when the bell clanged for last drinks, in his watchfulness and his cupping the glow. (p. 137-8)

It is this capacity for rendering small details that gives Rowe’s writing its ferocious power.  Jack is a man who still cups his cigarette to hide its glow from the enemy, long, long after his war is over.  When his kids are little he can control his anger with a walk down a long dusty Australian bush road, but despite the cocktail of tranquilisers that Lani steals to sell at parties, it gets harder, and the walks turn into absences of increasing length.  Lani used to go hunting for him, her kids not understanding why, and would drag him home from sad and seedy boarding places.   But is this time for good?  How can the victims of his violence know?

When your father left – the first week of December, freckles resurfacing across cheeks, the stink of insect repellent suffocating the kitchen – Aunt Stell sent a card that said It is Better to have Loved and Lost Than To Live With A Psycho Forever.  Your mother liked it so much she put it up on top of the fridge and it stayed there, all through Christmas, the smallest of her small revenges, roosting among the cards with snow and camels and reindeer. (p.2)

Their last family activity was a grisly treasure hunt, searching for the remains of Belle, a loving, faithful animal found torn to bits by a predator not of the Australian bush.  Ru now prefers to love the bike, a non-living thing, resting [her] hands between its handlebar horns as though it is a loving, faithful animal. 

Ev, who used to love like a loving, faithful animal, now lives in her more glamorous past:

Well, I was pretty.  I did used to be brave.  I’m telling you.  Skinny as a whippet – you could put your hands like this around my waist – and just that fast.  Wipe that look off your face, girl.  Before I met your father.  Before I…

Yes, she can hear herself. Whine whine whine. Evelyn wraps pale ivory tissue around a trio of flock deer, their taupe fuzz wearing away in patches, giving them a look of hereditary mange.  If only she can get the girls to see.  See her differently. Just exactly as she had been – that’s hardly demanding a great stretch of the imagination; there are photographs after all.  Then she might be able to see herself that way.  Step right back up into her old joy, her old hope,  some large bright room in herself that’s been closed off these seventeen years.  (p.24)

This is a splendid debut, subverting the tired old genre to create a nuanced portrait of a family in search of redemption.  Highly recommended.

Author: Josephine Rowe
Title: A loving, faithful animal
Publisher: UQP, 2016
ISBN: 9780702253966
Review copy courtesy of UQP.

Available from Fishpond A Loving, Faithful Animal and good bookstores everywhere.


Responses

  1. Sounds right up my street, Lisa, but doesn’t seem to have a UK publication date… yet. I will have to be patient

    • Yes, it’s very new. I think I was lucky to have it so soon:)

  2. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by the book. […]

  3. […] Josephine Rowe: A Loving, Faithful Animal, see my review […]

  4. […] A Loving, Faithful Animal (Josephine Rowe, UQP) see my review […]


Categories

%d bloggers like this: