Between a Wolf and a Dog seems like a curious name for an Australian book (because we don’t have wolves here and never did) so I Googled it and discovered via At Twilight that it’s a translation of the French expression entre chien et loup, an expression which means the twilight, when you can’t distinguish between a wolf and a dog, or, more symbolically, between friend or foe, between feeling safe or feeling threatened.
One ought to feel safe within a family, but that’s not the case in this dysfunctional family. There are two sisters, April – who is warm-hearted but flighty and feckless, and Ester, who is reserved and rather controlled. She is a family therapist, and Blain uses this device to enable the reader to see how Ester reacts with calm and predictable responses to the tragedies of her clients. It is not so easy for her in real life, however, because her sister has slept with her husband Lawrence and three years later, she is still not in the mood to reconcile.
Not welcome in this family for obvious reasons but still part of it because he is the father of Ester’s two school-age children, is Lawrence. He has problems of his own. He has been tweaking the findings of political polls – more from boredom than from malice – but his misdemeanours have just been discovered by a god-botherer with an assertive conscience. It’s highly likely that Lawrence is going to lose his lucrative contract with the newspaper, not to mention his reputation.
For the sisters’ widowed mother Hilary, there is now an urgency about resolving this more-than-awkward situation. Hilary has a terminal disease, and she wants her daughters to be there for each other when she is gone. Like most of us, she wants to be able to control things from beyond the grave, and she wants her life tidied up the way that she has tidied up her cupboards. She’s not above some emotional manipulation because her last film project is about her family, with shots of the sisters playing together and of the family all together in happier days. She shows this film to Ester, the one who has the most to forgive.
More significantly, Hilary is fearing the pain and loss of control from a brain tumour, and she has decided that she is not going to wait for that to happen.
For most of Between a Wolf and a Dog the moral issues are mostly the ordinary human ones: forgiveness, the vexations of family life, and the need to own up to folly and take responsibility for it. But Hilary’s decision takes the novel into darker territory. Having acquired what she thinks is a means to end her life, Hilary makes a decision that has far-reaching ramifications.
For the reader the questions remain: who to tell beforehand without the risk that they might prevent the act and also avoid them being prosecuted; how to arrange the finding of the body afterwards to minimise distress; and how to manage the hurt of those who didn’t know beforehand and couldn’t say goodbye, and how to prevent them blaming the one who did know and didn’t tell them. Hilary thinks she has a solution, but I bet book groups will argue about her choice long and hard.
This is why, as Andrew Denton says, we need urgent reform to enable dying with dignity.
PS Between a Wolf and a Dog has been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards.
Author: Georgia Blain
Title: Between a Wolf and a Dog
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2016
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: Between a Wolf and a Dog