If I didn’t feel a need to finish every book I start, I would have given up on Michelle de Kretzer’s The Lost Dog by around page 50. The book begins with Tom Loxley, a writer who has just finished his manuscript on Henry James, taking his dog out for an ill-fated walk in the Australian bush. From there, we jump to his memories of meeting his friend Nelly, his parents’ history of meeting and marrying, and the Loxley family’s move from India to Australia. Flashbacks are nested into flashbacks, and the present day occasionally interrupts. I was sure this would be one of those books that substitutes puffed-up descriptive language, obscure metaphors, a nonlinear style, and edgy talk of how people’s shit smells (I’m not kidding) for coherent storytelling, compelling characters, and imagery a reader can hold onto.
But then, somewhere in the middle of the second chapter, something changed. The narrative settled down a bit, with fewer shifts between characters and time lines. The significant characters started to take shape, and I had to know what was going to happen.
In one way or another, all of the main characters in the book are dealing with a loss. Tom has lost his dog, as is obvious from the title. Iris, Tom’s mother, has lost control of her body. Nelly’s loss is wrapped up in a mystery chronicled in old newspapers that Tom reads obsessively in an effort to understand her.
There are some wonderfully poignant moments in this book, particularly between Tom and his mother. De Kretser has a great knack for detail, and she captures the complexity of parent-child relationships beautifully. Her skill with detail also comes through in her descriptions. Her words painted as clear a picture in my mind as any painting could. Here, for example, is a glimpse of Tom and Nelly at a flea market:
Strolling along packed aisles, Tom marveled at the ease with which articles chanced status, transmuted by the alchemy of desire. The flea market was a resting place for the debris piling up behind the whirlwind of the new. Wishes were its currency. Their force might resurrect objects no longer animated by collective yearning. A turquoise and black dress with shoulder pads, Jim Reeves’s Greatest Hits on vinyl, a brown-glazed biscuit jar sealed with a cork, a Smith Corona typewriter in a pale blue, rigid plastic case: Tom saw each of these leavings pounced on. Invested with fresh private meaning, they passed once more into the treasure albums of one’s mind.
This kind of writing certainly belongs in “the treasure albums of one’s mind,” and I’m happy I persevered through the rocky beginning so that I could have such words to treasure.
Because this book earned the 2008 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Book of the Year Award at the New South Wales Literary Awards, I am adding to my list for the Book Awards Challenge II.