Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2021

The Dogs, by John Hughes

When I consulted Tom Chetwynd’s Dictionary of Symbols to unravel the symbolism in the title of John Hughes new novel The Dogs, this is what I found:


The animal instincts as helpful intermediaries between man and nature; or as negative aggression.

Dogs help man hunt the wild animal and round up the domestic animal: So they are symbols of the right inner relationship between man and his animal nature.

Their good nose for scenting unseen prey, or intruders: Intuition, which is aware of other people’s inner nature, sense when something is wrong, and is not easily deceived by others.  (Dictionary of Symbols, by Tom Chetwynd, Paladin, (Grafton, Collins) 1982 ISBN 9780586083512, p.124)

The negative entries about the symbolism of ‘dogs’ include: male aggression, or to represent the masculine aggression of the Animus in women; associated with the underworld and death via forces which hunt and hound the conscious Ego and tear it to pieces from the depths of the unconscious.  

From Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, I found the common allusion to Shakespeare’s horrors of war:

Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III, i (1599) (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p386)

and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s quatrain about the superstitious belief that dogs howl at death:

In the Rabbinical Book, it saith
The dogs howl, when with icy breath
Great Sammaël, the Angel of Death
Takes through the town his flight! (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Golden Legend III, vii (1851), ibid p.385

As you can see from the blurb, all these meanings surface in the terrain explored in the novel:

Michael Shamanov grapples with the idea of his mother’s life and her desire to finish it. Perhaps it’s her life he has been running away from and not his own.

“The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.” — Elias Canetti

Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?

Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?

When the novel starts, the narrator Michael is visiting his mother during her last days in the aged care home where he abandoned her two years ago.  Although Michael berates himself over this and other relationships, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds — a strong, assertive, occasionally aggressive woman, Anna had told him she never wanted to see him again and he took her at her word.  They did not have a great relationship anyway, exacerbated by her enigmatic refusal to tell him anything about her life.  

I gave her a notebook once and asked her to sketch out her life for me, but it remained almost empty.  She jotted down only a few words, place names mainly, that perhaps were a key.  When I asked her to tell me about them, she dismissed the request as if swatting a fly and said, ‘Haven’t I told you enough already? You’re the writer.’ The few stories she did tell me, so seductive to me as a child, seem to me now to draw their significance from another world about which I knew nothing, Smokescreens really, a wonderful shadow theatre of a time she could never let go entirely, though it has betrayed her in such a way she would rather die than allow it real presence again. (p.19)

Childhood, she says, is  a terrible time…

And not just childhood —

We wandered in the forests.  Ate leaves, bark, roots.  Someone said, the boy’s half-dead, he’ll die anyway.  You get me… We slept under bushes, in ditches.  Wherever we turned were Germans.  The men said we had to fight our way through.  We were going to die anyway.  They came to us at night. There weren’t enough women.  All those men and only three of us… You understand. We thought we were going to die. (p.45)

Well, parents don’t IMO have to give up their privacy, and there can be many reasons why they stay silent, including a wish not to burden their children.  But for Michael, whose father committed suicide when he was only seven, the emotional baggage of his mother’s silence results in intergenerational trauma that poisons all his relationships.  His marriage failed, and he despises his son Leo who is a shady property developer on the Gold Coast. 

Unlike the homes of Michael’s schoolfriends full of their family’s history, Anna’s home is austere.

Apart from the furnishings — modern, functional, new — the house was bare. There were no memories of my father, no pictures or photographs on the walls, no decorations or knick-knacks of any kind. (p.92) 

Except for the basement. Anna is a hoarder, but not because she wants to compensate for irretrievable memories of her European past.  She doesn’t want to remember.  

Her hoarding is an act of rescue: all the unwanted, unloved, broken, superseded things of the world are, if not redeemed by her keeping, at least given a home.  They belong.  And there can never be enough. (p.93) 

But when Michael discovers that his mother has been opening up to Catherine, the empathetic nurse at the aged care home, he is determined that she will speak to him.  

When she does, it’s only in shards because she has dementia. 

It would be tedious for me to recount now all the avenues and circuits, dead-ends and one-way streets, the contours of that faltering, inchoate, furtive, febrile, anxious monologue my mother seemed transported by that afternoon —

But he pounces on the opportunity:

What had been lying in wait so long in me, with all the thoughtless purpose of a beast of prey, now leapt.

Only to find that she is still very much in control of the narrative, forcing him to listen without interruption: 

She spoke the way a ship tilts into a swell; as if walking on a rock shelf slick with weed.  And the manner of her speech — more, even, than what she said — came at me like a miss-hit, unreturnable because it does to the ball what no amount of skill or intention can do, and took me by surprise. (p.11)

But with the help of some long-secret letters he pieces together her amazing story.  Anna, it turns out, is the estranged daughter of Ravenna da Spesa, an Italian opera singer who before the Russian Revolution entranced Prince Mikhail Orlov — and, disastrously, his father as well — when she sang at the Tercentenary of Romanov Rule.  Born in 1916 Anna was caught up in World War II and enlisted with the Italian partisans as a nurse, enduring traumatic experiences that she can never forget.

Part 3 enters different territory as Michael ventures into a relationship with the nurse Catherine and renegotiates his relationship with his son because he needs his help. 

This novel is so rich in themes and ideas and striking observations, it deserves multiple readings, and I have only scratched the surface with this review. 

As you can see in this article at the SMH (if it isn’t paywalled), although The Dogs is not biographical, John Hughes has mined aspects of his grandmother’s life to create this moving novel.  It was not until she was in her dying days that he learned about her life:

My grandmother grew up during the Holodomor (the Great Ukrainian Famine) of the early 1930s, in which more than three million Ukrainians starved to death. She survived and gave birth to four children while Stalin cemented his power through the Great Terror, allied then unallied himself with Hitler, and Ukraine was invaded by the German army. She escaped Kiev with my grandfather, and for the last two years of World War II wandered through eastern Europe with these four young children, finally to arrive at a transit camp at the port of Bagnoli on the western shore of the Gulf of Naples, where they were processed by the International Refugee Organisation and shipped to Australia as displaced persons. 

By coincidence, it is only two days since I mused on the near-absence of Russians in our Australian literature, and though in this novel the Shamanov family tree is Italian-Russian, the Russian heritage of Michael and his son Leo contributes to the preoccupations of the narrator!


  • Dictionary of Symbols, by Tom Chetwynd, Paladin, (Grafton, Collins) 1982 ISBN 9780586083512
  • Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, first published 1870, 18th edition, 2009, edited by Camilla Rockwood, Chambers Harrap Publishers, 2009, ISBN: 9780550104113

Author: John Hughes
Title: The Dogs
Cover design by Chil3, artwork ‘Offerings’ by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780645076349, pbk., 312 pages
Source: Personal subscription to Upswell Publishing 


  1. Do you own those symbolism books? Those sound like great references. I gloss over a lot of that in my reading, I think! This book sounds great.


    • Hi Laura!
      Yes, I do. I don’t use them much but sometimes they come in handy. In this case I was intrigued by the title and knew it was hinting at something just beyond my memory. I’ve got the Oxford Dictionary of Allusions too. Of course you can find nearly everything online but when you have the book, you can see much more than what you thought you were looking for.


  2. I had a workmate – I was office boy and she was a draftswoman – many years ago whose parents were White Russians (ie. royalists) who had escaped via China (where I think she was born). Fascinating stories but I was too young to take her down the pub and hear more.

    I understand the frustration of not knowing your ‘roots’ but I don’t think you can force parents and grandparents, especially frail ones, to tell you what you think you ought to know.


    • I agree. People talk a lot about mental health these days but they don’t seem to consider that for some people, revisiting the past is a bridge too far.


  3. Hi Lisa,

    In terms of Russians in Australian literature, my first book, The Idea of Home, dealt extensively with the arrival of Ukrainian emigrants to Australia (as Displaced Persons) after the War. Also, my first novel, The Remnants, has a Russian emigre as one of its protagonists who had a relationship with the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam before the War.


    • Hi John, thanks for this, I’ll add those to my wishlist.
      When I went to Goodreads to add them, I discovered that your presence there is a bit of a muddle. There’s a page with 6 of your books where your first name and surname is separated by 9 spaces for disambiguation, but the list of books doesn’t include this one, The Dogs. (See
      So I searched for the Dogs using the ISBN and found it with multiple other ‘John Hughes’ at
      I’m a librarian at GR, do you want me to disambiguate The Dogs (i.e. with 9 spaces) so that it lands on the same page as your other books?


      • Thanks, Lisa, if you could do that, that would be great.


        • Done!


          • Thank you.


  4. […] The Dogs by John Hughes (Upswell Publishing), see my review […]


  5. […] The Dogs, by John Hughes […]


  6. Hi Lisa, just finished reading The Dogs. A sad, but good read. I did like that you found the reference of the symbol to the title. I would love to read a sequel to The Dogs.


    • It is sad, But he’s such a good writer…


  7. […] like Ultimo, Upswell has started well with one of its first books, John Hughes’ The dogs (Lisa’s review) being shortlisted for last year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (not that awards […]


  8. […] Lisa also enjoyed this book. […]


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