The best way to describe Rebekah Clarkson’s debut book, Barking dogs, is that it’s a portrait of a community undergoing social change. This community is Mount Barker on the outskirts of Adelaide. Once a farming community, it is now, says Wikipedia, “one of the fastest growing areas in the state”, the province of developers, the aspirational and the upwardly mobile, rich pickings in other words for an observant novelist. But, did you notice that I said “debut book” not “novel”? This is because, superficially, this book presents as a collection of short stories. However …
What’s in a name? It reminded me of the recent discussion about Junot Díaz’s debut book, Drown, on the ABC’s First Tuesday Bookclub. Drown is also a collection of short stories, but panel members argued that it could be defined as a novel because “the stories are too interlinked for us not to see it as a narrative whole”. Drown, though, does have the same narrator throughout, which Clarkson’s book doesn’t. Her book is probably closer to Tim Winton’s The turning. Like Barking dogs, its stories are set in the same place, and it has some recurring characters, though, from memory, I’d say recurring characters are a stronger feature of Clarkson’s book.
The question is, of course, does any of this matter? Not really, except that calling it a novel might attract more readers – you know, those who say they don’t like short stories. And, it is always relevant to consider form, even if, in the end, the actual label is irrelevant.
The form, style and structure of Barking dogs, do, in fact, give us much to consider. There are, for example, 13 stories. Are we meant to consider the “negative” implications of the number 13 in terms of this community’s future? Why does Clarkson start the collection with a troubling story (“Here we lie”) set at a later time in the book’s chronology, and end with a story set at the earliest time (“If it wasn’t this”)? The fact that this last story, although set in the seemingly idyllic rural days, ends rather bleakly on the image of a tree “alone, stark and bare” suggests that Clarkson recognises the complexity in all communities. Again, I was reminded of Pulitzer prize-winning author Paul Beatty on the First Tuesday panel talking about how he sometimes plays around with the order of the stories in Drown, and how this changes its impact.
Regardless of the overall intention, though, the stories make great reading. Whether they are told 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, and whether the narrator is male or female, young, middling or older, or struggling financially or more well-off, Clarkson is able to get inside her characters’ heads. She captures, and explores, the feelings, values and thoughts, the confusions, uncertainties, and pretensions, of her town’s inhabitants. We can “see” it all: the struggle to pay mortgages, to maintain meaningful marriages, to raise their children (or to conceive them in the first place), to get on with their neighbours, to achieve the lives to which they aspire.
A number of motifs run through the book, including the murdered girl Sophie Barlow (whose family appears in the second story, “Something special, something rare”, but whose story is never fully told), the Wheeler family which forms the main connecting thread in the collection, and of course the barking dogs of the title. These, together with the setting, contribute to the coherence of the whole.
Some stories stood out more than others. This may say more about my particular interests, rather than the quality of the stories, but it may also be that the stories that are more connected by characters are more engaging because of the story development they entail. It’s a book that would bear multiple readings, because even skimming it for this review revealed further links and connections that I missed on my first pass.
The overall theme, that of a community going through change, is beautifully encapsulated in the story “Hold me close”, in which the recently widowed Edna, a long-term resident of the town’s now rural outskirts, struggles to understand the aspirations and lifestyle of her daughter, Andrea, who has moved back to the area. Andrea lives in a “ex-display home village” and, Edna thinks, is more interested in appearance than substance. This tension between striving for success and being, hmm, more real is played out in various ways in the other stories.
But, perhaps the best way to illuminate the book is to look briefly at how the Wheeler family is woven through the book. The Wheelers are 49-year-old Malcolm, a successful management professional, his confident teacher wife, Theresa, their 11-year-old son Martin who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and Jasper, their barking dog. They epitomise the new families in the area – their aspirations, their values, and their problems – and at least one of them appears, or is referred to, in seven of the stories. The first references are in passing. In “Something special, something rare”, Martin has been physically bullied by Liam Barlow, but we don’t meet him specifically, and in the following story “World peace” he is again referred to, this time by one of his classmates. We gather he’s a little different, and doesn’t fit in well with the normal schoolyard cut-and-thrust.
The next four stories (4th, 7th, 9th and 11th) in which they appear are told from their perspectives, the first two from Malcolm’s, then one from Martin’s, and finally Theresa’s. I don’t want to give too much away, but we get the picture of a fairly kind, laissez-faire husband married to a more go-ahead, shall we say, proactive, wife. In the fourth story, “Raising boys”, we also meet their barking dog who is bothering his neighbour, and in the seventh, which is, structurally, the central story, Malcolm receives some terrible news which provides the book’s emotional heart. The penultimate story, “Jasper”, is shocking. It exposes the cracks in “society today”, such as unrealistic aspirations, lack of neighbourly communication, fractured marital relationships.
Interestingly, while the stories are not presented chronologically, the Wheelers’ “story” is, giving the book a clear narrative arc. The overall order, perhaps, provides its thematic one, one that warns against rose-coloured glasses about the past.
Unfortunately, I am using an uncorrected proof copy from which quotes are forbidden (though I have “quoted” one or two phrases which I hope is okay!). However, I do want to briefly mention the writing, which maintains an effective satirical tone while also conveying a level of tenderness for the characters. There’s some lovely irony too. We know for example, that poor Graham Barlow’s vision for his business, Winners, is unlikely to be realised (“Something special, something rare”), and that Gladeview Park, where many of our characters live, does not provide the “Serene and fun-filled living” environment promised on the estate’s sign (“Jasper”).
Barking dogs offers a thoughtful, intelligent look at contemporary suburban life. It explores what a pristine, homogenous white middle-class enclave might look like. Unfortunately, it looks more like a bunch of isolated individuals than a healthy community, partly because the pressures that drive them seem to prevent real engagement with each other. It doesn’t need to be this way.
Barking dogs (Uncorrected bound proof)
South Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2017
(Review copy courtesy Affirm Press)