The other week, as I was tramping across the soggy fields near my house, a woman stopped me and asked if I’d noticed a boxer on my travels. Although a big dog off the lead is as welcome to me as a rampaging lion, I managed to keep my voice and face sympathetic as she explained how her pet had darted out the front door. Apologies I can’t supply the ending of this real-life drama (memoir?), but I’m sharing to show I’m not a canine lover. I’ve steered away from doggy fiction since Waiting For Doggo, but, these two took my fancy, proving – as if I didn’t know – that, even narrated from the point of view of an earthworm, fiction is always about the human condition.
Yet what he lacks in experience of the world, he makes up for in compassion and a rich interiority. When he sees an advert looking for a home for a one-eyed dog, misused and brutalised by badger baiting, he recognises a kindred spirit. But, while One Eye is perfect company at home, outside, with his tendency to attack other dogs, he’s trouble. Fearful at the best of times, Ray hasn’t the skills to negotiate with angry dog owners, and he can’t let the authorities take his friend away…
I did wonder (without coming to any conclusion), as I often do with socially disabled characters, about whether his skills (such as the ability to drive – although this does get explained) were consistent with his limitations. And I felt furious with his father (although, reading between the lines, he was rather inadequate himself) keeping him from school. (Would that happen? Would the neighbours not alert social services, “even” in rural Ireland?) But our narrator is certainly an engaging character who also provides a glimpse into a dog’s mind through the use of the second person as a form of address, and through his dreams and the emphasis on smell. A beautifully written and poignant story about life on the margins of society: congratulations to Sara Baume and thanks to Windmill Books for my review copy.
The dawning of doggy consciousness is both amusing and poignant. Rosie, a German shepherd, stops licking her vagina to wonder “what had happened to the last litter she’d whelped. It suddenly seemed grossly unfair that one should go through the trouble of having pups only to lose track of them” (p3). Atticus, a Neapolitan mastiff who becomes the bullying pack leader, is woken from his dream by the unprecedented thought that the squirrel whose neck he’s biting into must feel pain. But, led by the poodle, Majnoun, the fifteen manage to open their cages and step outside to freedom, although three are too overwhelmed to follow the pack to the lakeshore.
The novel follows the fates of all fifteen from this strange awakening to the point of death, as they explore the implications of the transformation. They develop language beyond the basics of “I will bite you”, which takes the mongrel Prince into the realms of poetry. But this is a thought too far for most of the dogs and a schism arrives in the group, with murder, mutilation or banishment for the more enlightened, while the rest regroup around a commitment to their inherent canine nature. Yet even these seem to be “performing dogginess”, a false self concealing the creatures they’ve become. At the other extreme, Majnoun learns to understand and then speak English, forming a close bond with Nira, the woman who takes him in. Yet he never relinquishes his canine instincts; like the others, he continues to treasure hierarchy and the marvellous smells of “urine, fish and a thousand dirty socks”.
Fifteen Dogs is a highly original and engaging novel about the nature of society and of consciousness. It’s about dogs and humans and the interactions between them. After reading this novel, I can almost see the point of dogs – if you’re already a dog lover, you might enjoy it even more than I did. Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my review copy.