Saturday, July 22, 2017

Grief, Renewal and Rain: a review of "Between a Wolf and a Dog" by Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain, Scribe, 2016
 ISBN (13):9781925321111

To read Blain’s final novel (The Museum of Words, a memoir, will soon released by Scribe in August, 2017), is a strange, moving and emotional experience; and not only due to the exquisite, contained language and diligent, compelling depiction of interior lives, each at a point of quiet crisis. It is also because you know that the author was in the midst of editing the work in 2015 when she received her diagnosis of a virulent brain cancer that would claim her life the following year. This real-life context makes the connection with the older woman in the novel, Hilary, and her journey towards the decision of ending her own life when her own cancer spreads to her brain, charged on a level that brings the work deeply into the here and now. It is a sort of prophetic rendering of the author’s own fate, and it makes reading Between a Wolf and a Dog all the more profound. 

The novel’s timeline takes place largely over one day in Sydney. We meet the aging filmmaker and widow Hilary, and her two warring daughters: Ester, a family therapist and once-famous singer/songwriter April. Ester’s ex-husband, Lawrence is facing crises of his own; the stories, and histories of each character intertwine in intimate, devastating ways that have seemingly reached an impasse—an impasse that will shift as Hilary makes a decision that will change all their lives.

The opening of the novel is termed “now,” and Blain positions us in medias res, with an urgent immediacy. The opening words tell us, however: “This is the dream: Lawrence is alone.” The now is, therefore, also a dream: a landscape that hovers “between a wolf and a dog,” between night and dawn—a time of wandering spirits and insight, of portals to other, myth-like realms. If it is a dream, then the idea of “now” is something porous and fluid, shifting and working on a logic that defies rationality. This dream “now” is also a time of confusion and darkness, a place where monsters stir. The entwined stories within the small world depicted in the book each possess a degree of other-worldliness, a myth-like quality—each character wrestles and navigates their way through this terrain, of both the possibility for transformation, and also defeat at the hands of inner demons. 

The stories are framed with this: a dream where a man is alone. This alone-ness is the position of 
Hero; he finds himself separated from others and embarking on a journey that at first he cannot understand. It is ultimately a journey—so quest literature and myth tells us—that will end in some sort of subjugation of self in order to release the existence of a truer, higher sense of self, a nobler self, one that is truly heroic. Lawrence is given this chance when he is asked—demanded, in fact—to “discover” Hilary’s suicide from a heroin overdose, and be the intermediary between her gesture and April and Ester, Hilary’s grown daughters. “‘I need your help,’ she tells him. ‘And I figure if there is anyone in the world who owes a debt to me and my daughters, it’s you.” (208) The hero is also an anti-hero—someone who is not becoming great, but atoning for his abject failure to connect with and nurture others. There is a celebration of ordinary, street-version humility in this: the heroic act is executed quietly, behind doors, and occurs when we rise privately to the challenge of paying our debts.

Although the context is mythic in scope, creating a vast and dream-like interior life wherein each character needs to find their way, the stories stay contained within clear parameters of an external casing of mostly interior rooms (a shack, a therapist office, a bedroom, a car). These interior rooms are where order is sought, strategies unveiled or discussed. The wildness happens in the cold river, the rain, in water. And throughout the novel, it is always raining. This choice is rich with profound symbolic resonances: purging, a flood, baptism, new life, drowning and death, fertility and also renewal. This feels important in a novel that unravels itself slowly and surely towards a death, that within the strictures that fate lays out for us, there is—even in the darkest moments—the possibility of some kind of agency, some kind of heroism. This seems to be what Ester holds out to her clients, her daughters, and that April pursues when, towards the end of the book, she decides to “‘… go round there [to Ester's]. Maybe tomorrow. I will stay at the door until she talks to me. I’ll camp there,’ she laughs. ‘Maybe even take placards and a tent.’” (251)

Blain’s writing is both surgical and compassionate, lyrical without sentimentality. She deftly and quickly establishes characters with depth, and a compelling way of pulling us with each one of them on their different journeys. I read this book quickly—without meaning to, because it was in-between many books needed to be read, articles to be written. I did not want to put it down. So I didn’t, and then even at the end I re-read the final two chapters another three times before I could finally close the cover. I commenced Blain’s novel feeling jaded by reading, and ended refreshed and inspired. These sound like grand words, but I have to say that I would have said them anyhow, were Georgia Blain still alive and working on her next novel. And I know I echo the feelings of many when I say I wish writing her next novel was exactly what she was doing. 

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