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Even the Dogs by Jon McGregorHow to describe the 2012 IMPAC Award winner by Jon McGregor? Searing. Unflinching. Empathetic. Majestic. Haunting. It’s all these things and more. It begins with a quote from Dante’s Inferno: ‘Cut off from hope, we live on in desire.’ It’s a perfect summation of the loose-knit group of urban drug addicts in the north of England and the days surrounding the death of Robert, an obese alcoholic with bad headaches, at whose derelict flat they often congregate.

This is the underbelly of the fringe of the underclass. People stuck in a trap of poverty and addiction. People whose lives are devoted to one thing: the next fix. Crack. Smack. Heroin. Brown. Gear. There are many names but only one outcome: ruination, of lives, bodies and souls. Not for the squeamish, Even the Dogs is realism at its brutal best.

The story opens with the police knocking down the door to Robert’s derelict council flat to find his decomposing body. He’s been dead for days. We then see a string of visitors to his flat, calling through the letterbox and scrambling in through an open window. They include Laura, Robert’s only daughter, and Mike, Ben, Heather, Danny—all arriving at different times over the course of a few days. I say ‘we’, because the narrator consistently uses this term. But who is this ‘we’? And how does this narrator get into the flat when the police forensic unit is busy doing their work? An early clue comes thus:

They don’t see us, as we crowd and push around them. Of course they don’t. How could they. But we’re used to that. We’ve been used to that for a long time, even before. Before this.

Is this ‘we’ some form of ghosts?

The images of the flat and its detritus are haunting:

… some broken-beated lullaby holding us up against the walls and against each other, while out hands fall open and spill the spoons and pipes and empty cans, the scraps of foil and paper and cotton wool. Our crumbs of comfort scattering across the floor. Our open hands.

It takes a few pages to settle into the narration. Time speeds up and slows. It jumps around. Events are repeated. There are unsettling shifts. We witness Laura’s childhood in a few paragraphs, the happy beginnings with Robert and his wife Yvonne, the discordant notes, the chaos of his drinking, the tragedy of its aftermath in which Yvonne leaves Robert and takes Laura with her. Interspersed within these paragraphs are flitting snatches of the police and forensic people going about their work on finding Robert’s body:

We can hear two policemen talking … We can hear, faintly, Robert and Yvonne in the bath, splashing each other, asking for the soap. But when we look, there’s no one there, and the tiles are still cracked, fallen into the empty bath, and the sink has still been pulled from the wall.

In the second of the story’s five sections we have the POV of Danny mixed with the ghostly narrator’s. Danny’s paragraphs often end suddenly in the middle of a sentence. We are in the mind of a drug addict who can’t focus, who suffers from poor memory and blackouts. As a superb marriage of form and story, it’s reminiscent of The Autumn of the Patriarch by Garcia Marquez (see my review here).

Danny found Robert dead and wants to find Laura but can’t:

Thing to do now before anything else was to find Mike, up at the Parkside squats where they’d been sleeping lately and find him there he must be there. But Laura. But needing to score. But Mike might have some would he fuck would he 

If he hadn’t gone to his brother’s. If he hadn’t said all that to Laura. If he’d stuck with Mike. Then none of this would have

(McGregor has obviously gone to the Jose Saramago school of minimal punctuation!)

The process undertaken after Robert’s body is found spins out—from the honest portrayal of his autopsy, through to his funeral service at which the minister asks the men who carried in his coffin to stay so that he wouldn’t be the only one to send Robert on his way, and then the coronial enquiry. Alongside, we delve into different characters’ minds and lives, learning about the roots of their problems, how they came to be part of this sorry reality.

Horrors pile on top of horrors. Beatings, thefts, mindless violence, drug use, out of which come unforgettable images, from the ‘digging’ into veins, the heron (heroin?) that flies just out of Danny’s reach along one of the canals, and the ghastly treatment of one homeless man’s feet. He’s not taken his boots off for six months. ‘Turned out he had trench foot so bad there were things crawling around in his toes.’

It’s unrelenting stuff and when the few brighter moments come they are like shafts of sunlight banishing a perpetual gloom, such as Danny’s imagined(?) interview with the police, when they ask him when was the last time he’d seen Robert alive and well, to which he responds he’s never seen Robert alive and [well]!

Sadly, Laura returns to meet her father, after he has given up all hope of seeing her again, and she soon becomes an addict. Her lovely hands and skin and perfectly manicured fingernails will never be the same. Instead we see, through Danny’s eyes: ‘Cracked red sores around her mouth which opened up when she smiled.’ She says to Danny that she’s going to get clean; Danny laughs in her face: it’s a story he’s heard before, many times.

The prose is incredible throughout, but one section in particular transcends everything else I’ve read in recent memory. It is the story of Ant, an addict who had served in the army in Afghanistan. In a breathtaking sequence, starting with the roadside bomb that blows up the vehicle he’s travelling in, McGregor traces the production of heroin from the spot Ant lands with one leg blown off and medics rushing to treat him in the swaying poppy fields, all the way through the Afghani production, to Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe, spreading out through Western Europe, a tentacle of which enters the UK through porous borders, until it ends up in a northern council estate, and from there into the syringe held by Danny, which he plunges into his neck because it’s the only place he can find a willing blood vessel. It’s six-and-a-half pages of majestic writing that alone would have been worthy of the IMPAC Award.

By the story’s moving conclusion in the coroner’s court, we find out who the ghostly narrator represents, why Robert had his headaches, explanations for his death, why Danny couldn’t find Laura, and whether any of the rest of them escape the inescapable.

A tough but rewarding read.

Thanks to Lisa @ ANZ LitLovers for running the competition in which I won it. You can read her review here.

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

2010

Bloomsbury

195 pages

ISBN: 9781408809471

Source: won in a competition run by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers.

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Well the first full day of the SWF 2010 has come and gone and a great day it was too.  (I did enjoy a couple of lunch time lectures earlier in the week at The Mint too).  I went along to four talks today and enjoyed each of them.

1. ‘Celebrating the Australian Accent’ – with Kath Leahy, David Foster & Jeremy Sims (who stood in for Jack Thompson), moderated by Katharine Brisbane. There were plenty of laughs and each speaker added depth to the discussion, which delved into the history of the accent, its transformation from a prim English accent – particularly in public life and broadcasting, through to the various incarnations we have today, including quite distinct regionalised language and delivery. 

2. ‘Tales of Adversity & Survival’ – with US author David Vann who wrote ‘Legend of a Suicide’ about his father’s suicide, Brenda Walker’s memoir Reading by Moonlight which is one of the books of the month on the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, and Ross Fitzgerald, who has battled alcoholism and drug dependency and lived to tell the tale (and many others besides).  Each author spoke about the method in which they addressed tragedy, grief and/or illness, which ranged from quite distant or oblique structuring (Vann) through to the very direct (Fitzgerald).  What was clear was that each method seemed perfect for the story they were trying to tell. 

3.  ‘Performing Words’ – in which Jana Wendt discussed the role of music in their respective memoirs with Anna Goldsworthy (Piano Lessons) and Linda Neil (Learning How to Breathe).  Anna played a couple of wonderful piano pieces from Bach & Chopin, and Linda sang a song she had sung with her ill mother in hospital and then played a violin piece she had written whilst in India watching dead bodies float down the Ganges.  This session was excellent with moving performances & insightful discussion of how music informs both writing and life.  What struck me is how these women grew up with music around them and what a powerful force it has been in their lives, with Goldsworthy describing how her music teacher’s piano lessons taught her so much more than music, including great little gems of wisdom on how to live.  Neil described how her mother was a wonderful singer and would cook whilst singing opera!  This was then juxtaposed with her battle with Parkinson’s which stole her voice.  The emotion in the pieces played by both Anna and Linda was infused with these life-long lessons and knowledge, and it was a privilege to be party to some of their thinking and their gift for music. 

4. ‘Judges and Winners’ – a highly entertaining panel discussion, with Colm Toibin (twice a Man Booker Prize bridesmaid, but winner of many other awards including the Dublin IMPAC & also himself a judge on several major literary awards including the Man Asian Prize), Tom Keaneally (winner of Booker for Schindler’s Ark), John Carey (twice Booker Prize Chairperson, including the year Keneally won), Chinese author Su Tong, (he of Raise the Red Lantern fame, and more recently The Boat to Redemption – winner of the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize), moderated by Caroline Baum, herself a regular judge on Australian literary awards.  This discussion was a lot of fun.  It ranged from how on earth does a judge read circa 130 books in what amounts to just a four-month period in the case of the Booker Prize, which amounts to one book per day.  Astonishing!  I favour ‘close reading’, which is slow, so I’d be toast.  There was admissions of judges leaving the room knowing that the best book (in their opinion) hadn’t won (cue gasps from the audience!), judge’s walk-outs, as well as the inside experience of someone shortlisted for the Booker – with all the rigmarole of the presentation dinner – hilariously provided by Colm.  Colm also provided high praise for Su Tong’s book The Boat to Redemption, which sounded so good I bought it at the end of the session.  Tong gave some rare glimpses into the world of Chinese literary scene, including not only dodgy publishers, but street sellers who would copy out recognised authors’ works and sell them passed off as their own work!  Finally, there was all-round agreement on the announcement of  JG Farrell as the winner of the 1970 Lost Booker Prize for his book Troubles, the first of the Empire Trilogy, decided by public voting, with Troubles garnering a clear win with 38% of the vote.  Colm Toibin & John Carey were effusive in praise for a deserved win. 

I had wanted to go to another talk in the mid-afternoon, but not only was that one full by the time I’d had a quick sandwich, but all the rest were full too – clearly a sign of the popularity of the festival.  Otherwise, it was a very entertaining day, with a smaller number of talks on tomorrow and the weekend to come as well.

The D!

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