How many novels have you read featuring the Vietnam War? I’ve not read many I must say, but last year I did review Charles Hall’s Summer’s gone, and now this year I’ve read Josephine Rowe’s A loving, faithful animal. It’s a debut novel but, from its form, you can tell that Rowe is an accomplished short story writer. I have in fact read one of her short stories – from her collection, Tarcutta Wake. Unusually for me, I didn’t review it at the time. I think this is because I planned to read the whole collection, but that hasn’t happened (yet, anyhow), which is clearly my loss.
So, before I discuss the content of this novel, I should explain what I mean by this statement regarding short stories and its form. For a start, it’s a multi-voice novel. On its own, this is not unusual, but here the voices are also in different persons, which is not unheard of either, really. However, added to this is the fact that the chapters (or “stories”), particularly “Breakwall”, could be read as stand-alone pieces. To make the novel out of these pieces, they are linked via character, and there’s an overall chronological narrative arc to them, but they also remain little jewels in themselves. There’s real skill here, in the way Rowe juggles her voices, perspectives, stories to create a very satisfying whole.
Now, to discuss the novel itself. It comprises six stories, starting in second person with Ruby, whom we come to realise is the younger daughter of the book’s central family. It then progresses through four stories told from different third person limited perspectives – Ruby’s mother Evelyn, her father Jack, her uncle and father’s brother Les or Tetch, and her sister Lani – before returning to Ruby’s second person voice to conclude. The story is one of a family broken by the father’s ongoing trauma (PTSD) following his Vietnam War experience. It’s a devastating story showing how such trauma can play out, resulting in domestic violence, dividing loyalties and causing splits in families.
… she did not drive away …
The novel opens on New Year’s Eve, around 1990. The family has struggled on for some time. Jack has been unable to retain good employment, going in and out of rehab, with Evelyn always drawing him back, wanting their relationship and the family to work. But, every time she takes him back, she loses something too, particularly in terms of the respect of her elder daughter. As the novel opens, it’s New Year’s Eve, and Jack has gone, for good this time it seems, after something unspeakably brutal – the full details are never, fortunately, given – has happened to the family’s pet dog, Belle, the titular “loving faithful animal”. Except, as you’d expect, there’s more to the title than this. Evelyn, too, is “a loving faithful animal”, as in her way is Ruby and, perhaps we could also argue, Jack’s half-brother, Les/Tetch. He had escaped the war by “getting rid of his own fingers” and now hovers on the edge of the family, wanting to keep an eye on them, wanting his brother to be okay, but wanting too some family for himself.
What I enjoyed most about this book, besides its tackling this important subject, is its empathetic but unsentimental portrayal of its characters. Evelyn’s loyalty (her faithfulness) is shown to be both admirable and stupid. We see the catch-22, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t nature of her situation, with the added element of a young girl having made her bed, that is, having married against her parents’ advice, and now having to lie in it:
But she could never quite bring herself to. Run out on him like that. And it was never as simple as money. It was never as simple as pride, because she’s not sure she’s never had much of that either. Or if she does, it hasn’t turned out to be worth much, not when it comes right down to it. (II “The Coastal Years”)
Life is cruel, particularly when stubbornness and lack of forgiveness face off against each other. Anyhow, we also ache for Jack who can’t escape his past, and nor “get a handle on” the future, so leaves rather than inflict more cruelty. We see and understand Lani’s decision to reject it all and escape into a future on her own, while Ruby stays determinedly loyal. Every decision though comes at a cost.
It’s not an easy book to read, and not just because of the subject matter. Rowe is not the sort of writer who wants to tell a simple narrative. She wants to convey emotions, psychology, motivations, not just actions, because these are the stuff of life. And this requires a particular sort of writing which, for Rowe here, is a sort of minimalist, sometimes disjointed, sometimes lyrical style:
This is Exhibit A in the Museum of Possible Futures, the life that might have rolled out smooth as a bolt of satin, if she had just swung her slender legs up into that beautiful car and driven as fast as she could in the opposite direction, leaving the man with the camera far behind. Your father, he could keep the photograph.
But she did not drive away. Instead she sold the car and spent every night of her life trying to lead your father out of the jungle, out of the mud, away from the cracks of invisible rifles, strange lights through the trees. (I “A Loving, Faithful Animal”)
There’s more of course – isn’t there always? – including little running motifs involving cicadas and panthers, and Tetch whom I’ve barely mentioned, but I’ll close here. This is the sort of book that I’d love to see in next year’s awards shortlists, for its writing and for its fierce, authentic evocation of the lasting effects of war. I wonder if I will.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by the book.