Hughes, John. The Dogs. Upswell Publishing, 2021. RRP: $29.99, 310pp, ISBN: 9781743822135.
Note: on the day this review was published, an article was also published in The Guardian detailing similarities between The Dogs and The Unwomanly Face of War, by Svetlana Alexievich. This was the first in a series of articles and statements published about The Dogs detailing, and then commenting on, incidences of plagiarism in the text. We feel it important to acknowledge this important conversation—and context—around the novel. To read a statement by John Hughes, you can click here. To read the thoughts of Terri-ann White, at Upswell Publishing, head here. And for commentary in The Conversation, by Alyson Miller, go here.
John Hughes’ seventh work, The Dogs, is an exploration of memory, guilt and inherited experience which blends exquisite prose with forensic observations of human behaviour and thought-provoking philosophical reflection. Anchored in a small coastal New South Wales town, The Dogs details the last-ditch attempt of Michael Shamanov, born of World War II refugee parents, to understand his mother’s—and thereby his own—life story. Michael’s background is a reflection of the author’s own half-Ukrainian, half-Welsh heritage. Hughes describes, as a child, living in ‘two worlds’, one being that of his family’s European past (‘Memory and Home’).
Michael’s mother, Anna Shamanov, is nearly a century old and, though body and mind are failing her, is an intimidating force from her nursing home bed. She also wants desperately to die. She clenches a secret tight within her, the dogs that were its catalyst still haunting her, and makes a bargain with her son—her story in exchange for a favour.
The Dogs traverses five generations of misdeed, misfortune, evasion and guilt, and the ramifications that bubble through the mud of time and genealogy. In a similar vein to Hughes’ previous novel No One (shortlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin), a driving force is guilt—the way it festers and grows and infects all it touches, passing down through generations, disguising itself as other failings. Making a cup of tea at 4am in his mother’s empty house, Michael reflects, ‘Should it really be any surprise that what’s past still clings to us somehow, and burns? That memory lives in us as worms live in the flesh of the dead?’ (15)
Michael’s first-person narration forms the novel’s framework. Outwardly gregarious, he cultivates a brand of wry, detached, somewhat self-congratulatory self-pity, keeping his emotions carefully tethered even when he knows it is disadvantaging him—whether disappointing his high-octane, naturally affectionate son, Leo, or alienating the woman (his mother’s nurse, Catherine El Khoury) whom he’s trying to persuade to love him. At one low point, Michael laments:
Things hadn’t gone well at Catherine’s place […] How could I have thought they could ever go any other way? I, whose one true legacy has been to leave behind bad memories like dog piss on telegraph poles (177).
Michael is a successful screenwriter, a profession that reflects his penchant for veneers—the suggestion of emotion rather than the real, raw thing. He has also been emotionally neglected by his mother all his life. So, when he witnesses a cyclist’s accident, it is with startling equanimity:
I swerve and barely miss the rider, who ends up crumpled against the narrow refuge island in the middle of the road. It’s a beautiful spot. The view opens up on the bend to the bay and bush beyond, as still as a black-and-white photograph. For a moment I wonder if I should stop and help the man. But I’m already well past the scene. (20)
The harrowing story of Anna, born in 1916, is revealed through letters and transcripts—in layers encompassing Russian princes, Italian resistance fighters, Venetian palaces, murky swamps, opulence and atrocity. Ostensibly, these have been translated into English by Anna herself, Michael presumes to be read after her death. Structurally, this approach is not sleek, and asks something of the reader to believe that, even allowing for her warm relationship with grandson Leo, the secretive and withholding Anna would leave so much behind. But how else to inhabit the depth of intimacy needed to convey the chain of guilt, loss and grief in a multi-generational cast of damaged characters? In all, the end justifies the means, with Hughes creating a richly textured, evocative, emotion-charged collage that spans a century and several sub-plots.
The Dogs could be considered equal parts philosophy and fiction. Hughes thought about giving his first novel, The Remnants, the subtitle ‘a novel in essays’. The Dogs could be similarly described—a series of reflections adorning a loosely bolted plot, drawing on what the author describes as the ‘productive tension’ arising from ‘this sense of a border between genres’. Of writing The Remnants, Hughes said he enjoyed ‘spinning away’ fictionally from the ‘historical or actual’ (Weekend Arts); in The Dogs, he spins away from the (discontinuous) narrative thread into meditations on fundamental questions about existence, values, the mind and language. The narrator Michael, though emotionally stunted, is an astute observer of human nature. Leo, recalling a mote of paternal wisdom, says, ‘Guilt’s a vampire […] I’m quoting someone there, if you don’t remember. A great natural philosopher’ (234). Anna, too, has her own grim philosophies to impart. Michael recalls his mother telling him, ‘It’s a terrible time, […] childhood. The world seems to exist with the sole purpose of providing you with an inexhaustible fountain of new things until you realise most of those new things are holes’ (16). Later in the novel, when Michael presses her for details, she berates him, saying,
For God’s sake, Michael, grow up. Have you never thought your bad luck’s there to save you from something worse? I’ve said enough. Better if we had only one word that was given to us at birth and when we used it that was it. Language is a curse. (163)
Beneath these reflective detours, narrative tension is sustained through several sub-plots, such as Michael’s fragile romance with the enigmatic Catherine, the rebuilding of his relationship with Leo, the question of Anna’s father’s identity and the fate of the fearsome younger Anna during her terrible war years in Europe. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Hughes’ language is utterly beguiling, with imagery both delicate and disturbing gracing each page in phrases such as ‘the quiet molecular roar of myriad branches fretting’ (102), or ‘clouds like a cloak drawn over a corpse’ (173). Further, Hughes’ observations on human nature, as revealed through his characters, are acerbic, insightful, often downright alarming or depressing and always food for thought. Describing his diminished mother, Michael says:
So it is: the mother becomes child to the son, a baby even, who once again must have its nappies changed and its mouth filled from the hand of another and its crying shushed and assuaged, but a baby now not unconscious of this need and so, so full of shame it burns, but not enough to incinerate, and so must ask for help to bring it to an end. (172)
Thus, Michael makes his bargain with his mother. In exchange for finding her, he promises to help her die. It is a promise—whether fulfilled or not—that has him delving into the meaning of love, language and memory, and the novel itself will have readers doing the same.
Hughes, John. ‘Memory and Home’ [Keynote Address presented at the Perth Day of Ideas, Institute of Advanced Studies, The University of Western Australia in September 2006]. Manning Clark House Inc. http://www.manningclark.org.au/newsletter/nl28_hughes.html. Sourced via the Wayback Machine at: https://web.archive.org/web/20070630141138/http:/www.manningclark.org.au/newsletter/nl28_hughes.html.
‘Weekend Arts, Saturday 2 March 2013’. Weekend Arts.ABC, Saturday 2 March 2013. Sourced at: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/weekendarts/john-hughes/4548344.
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.