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Posted on 5 Oct 2021 in Fiction |

JOHN HUGHES The Dogs. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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The new novel from award-winning writer John Hughes explores the transmission of trauma down the generations.

Memory is a major theme in John Hughes’s corpus. The Dogs, his seventh book and fourth novel, reverberates with intergenerational family trauma and the ghosts of the past – sleeping dogs, you could say.

Michael Shamanov, a second-generation son of Italian-Russian migrants to Australia, imagines his mother’s past in a Europe on the cusp of world war and revolution – an early life he knows nothing about because she has always withheld it from him. Hughes described historical guilt as the ‘driving force’ of his previous novel, No One (2019), shortlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award. It recurs as a major theme in The Dogs, in which a historical secret is revealed, inter alia, by a mother on her deathbed. To what degree does the child carry the tragedy of a parent? Is the past inherited?

Michael is our somewhat unlikeable first-person narrator: mid-fifties, adrift, egoistic, fatalistic, callous. He has made it as a TV scriptwriter but is cynical – ‘Every script I write is the same: normal people doing bad things. I’ve had some practice there.’ He can be winning and comically self-disparaging, but also pretty bloody awful. He puts his mother in a nursing home against her wishes and then wilfully does not visit for two years; he finally does, guiltily, but principally to sell her home, a fisherman’s cottage in Salamander Bay, New South Wales. He is also intrigued by her nurse, Catherine El Khoury, who has established a special bond with his mother.

Anna Shamanov has Alzheimer’s disease and is at the end of her long life; born in 1916, she is almost a centenarian at the time the novel is set, in the winter of 2015. The novel has three parts and is mostly set in Australia over a two-week period, with Michael looking back from the perspective of some two years later. In the middle part we flip between the Australian and the European passages, notably Venice, from 1939 to 1945, and St Petersburg, circa 1913 to 1915.

So why is Michael like this? Well, his childhood could be described as numbing: cold-mothered and, from the age of seven, fatherless. Anna refused to answer his many questions about her life before he was born, or about his father’s past. And there is familial form. Anna was treated cruelly by her motherand never met her father. History repeats. Her mother, Ravenna da Spesa, a once-famous Italian opera singer, refused to tell Anna who her father was. (Indeed, this subplot also remains a mystery to readers for some time.)

Ravenna was coveted by two men, a Russian aristocrat and his son, Prince Mikhail Petrovich Orlov; and for reasons I won’t spoil, she disappears from them both one morning in 1915.

A generation later, it’s Anna’s turn to disappear from Ravenna. She runs away from home at 18, and later, in 1940, enlists, and has quite a war. It seems she achieves some notoriety: first as a field nurse, then an escapee. She joins the Italian partisans resisting the occupying German army, on their hit-and-run missions; every day is possibly her last. She survives but terrible things happen that mark her for life. Michael recounts one of her reveries thus:

Trembling, she raised her hand and pointed over my head and said, ‘Do you see them?’ It was completely silent; not a sound came in through the window, which looked out on her garden, fading in the gathering twilight. And then she whispered, ‘There,’ and looked at me in growing despair. ‘Don’t you see them?’ Her hands were now at her breast, as if nursing something there. She swallowed, then sank back into her chair and turned her head from me and said, ‘The dogs, they’re getting closer.’

None of these things are known to Michael until the very end of his mother’s life. Yet they affect him. She didn’t want to have a child (him!) so late in life, at 44 years old, and she is closer to his son, Leo. He’s a bit of mess too and father and son are distant: both damaged, both divorced, both weepy. Leo has a gaudy place in Surfers Paradise, nouveau riche – dodgy property development and Russian connections are intimated – more subplot.

For Anna, the past has never gone away. She wants to forget but, even with dementia, she can never not remember it. She is still sometimes lucid enough to talk – more so than, say, the Francie character in Richard Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) – and, as in that novel, the dying parent’s right to die is also considered here. Michael tape-records his mother, finally, talking about her father and her past; surreptitiously at first, and then openly – it seems with her permission, but it’s more like a Faustian bargain.

Cruel, perhaps, but I was her son, and here she was as she had never been, helpless in her bed, drawbridge finally down. So I grilled her. Took advantage of her state. (Even as I recognised the perversity: that I was drawing out memories at the very moment her memory was falling apart!)

Edited transcripts of these ‘interviews’ between Michael and Anna form part of the novel; as do extracts from three sets of historical letters, all originally addressed to Anna’s mother (including one very clever sleight of hand). Michael draws on all this to imagine his mother’s past life, and his maternal grandfather’s, to synthesise a pre-war family biography and so backfill the gaps.

This novel is in communion with Hughes’s own The Idea of Home (2004), his award-winning first book of autobiographical essays, particularly ‘An Essay of Forgetting’. The Dogs begins with Michael looking at two old photos. The first is a formal shot featuring his mother as a child and his grandmother; the second is maybe a wartime image, a crowd of people fleeing, possessions abandoned. He peers but can’t see his mother in it – he may be searching for himself just as much. This brings to mind Daniel Davis Wood’s novella Blood and Bone (2014), another work that tries to imagine a forebear’s life, and its emotional and psychological legacy.

Hughes shows three generations of parent-child relationships haunted by the ghosts of the past, by historical events of which descendants have no knowledge but are, nevertheless, transmitted down the bloodline. The ripple effects include internalised grief and emotional pain. Should the past remain undisturbed, when it has such a bearing on the future? Should cause be explained so effect can be excused, or at least understood? Michael blames himself for his mother’s remove because she has always refused to explain herself. He calls forth her past when the opportunity presents and there is a resulting salvation in the end.

The Dogs is written in an essayistic style, in strong paragraphs, and a naturally philosophic voice. The first-person narration works. Michael’s fondness of parentheses throughout (notes to self?) is entertaining: diaristic and joking, as if dictating provisional thoughts. The novel is existential and geological in its explorations: the past is buried, layered in time, subterranean. Michael thinks through the subsurface and is able to sympathetically create the characterisations of his mother and her father in the account we are reading. It can sound like a secular homily of sorts – something profound is regularly offered:

That’s the beauty of existence, isn’t it, that there’s always further to fall, always something worse. Fear of something worse might even pass for a definition of what it means to be alive.

Hughes really looks through a microscope at times. There is realist detail: people eat and journey, ergo, much food and scenery are described. There are minute descriptions of Catherine’s earrings, an erotic prelude; and her smile. She acts as a kind of conscience for Michael, one that is pro-life. Objects are held in the mouth: a lozenge of jam for example, operating like a Proustian madeleine. The novel is sprinkled with such emotional memories and motifs.

The sweeping European geographies befit such a grand fiction as this. The Venice described is particularly evocative: Palazzo Destrezza di Mano is the Orlov family’s home in exile from Russia, and there is a surreal scene describing a funeral pyre on a gondola. The Australian passages bring it home and right up to date. There is a tour de force 30-page single take in the chapterless final part (‘the airport, the drive, the swim, the cafe’) wherein Michael and Leo, father and son, are in prolonged focus, a buddy-buddy rapprochement.

The Dogs is a seductive shaping of memory and imagination, a stunning, moving and intricate family story traversing two continents and multiple generations. It’s an allusive and superbly plotted literary fiction, a historical-contemporary cross: widescale and microscopic, metaphysical in aims, with autobiographical imprint. It’s John Hughes-ian (if I may be so bold). This is not a heavy book despite everything noted here – the text has density yet equipoise. Is family accursed? Are emotional fates inborn? Maybe Michael Shamanov’s life has not entirely gone to the dogs.

John Hughes The Dogs Upswell 2021 PB 270pp $27.99

Paul Anderson is an editor and volunteer with Dirt Lane Press. He was one of the editorial committee for the 2020 UTS writers’ anthology Empty Sky published by Brio Books.

You can buy The Dogs from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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