Sunday, 26 June 2011

Eva Hornung, Dogboy (or, is it Dog boy)

Image courtesy Text Publishing
Six Minervans met on the last night in May to discuss Eva Hornung's intriguing and sometimes confronting novel, Dogboy. We were a small group with some of our number gallivanting OS taking advantage of the northern summer.

Anyhow, back to Dogboy. In April we discussed Alan Gould's The lakewoman. It was shortlisted for last year's Prime Minister's Literary Awards - and we were impressed with it. Dogboy is the book that won. We all thought it was a pretty close call (not having discussed the other contenders). Some thought Hornung's book had the edge in tightness and originality, but we generally agreed that either would have been a worthy recipient. This is, in fact, the group's second Hornung novel. We read, a few years ago, her City of sealions which was published under her married name, Eva Sallis.

The discussion started with a brief report from one of our travelling members who said she'd enjoyed it, though she didn't expect to at the start. Another member was also not expecting to like it as she "hates dogs", but she too was impressed with the writing and originality of the story. 

The plot is pretty straightforward. It tells the story of Romochka who, at the beginning of the novel, is 4 years old and alone in an apartment in Moscow. He hasn’t seen his mother for a week or more and suddenly his uncle does not return. After a couple of days alone and sensing that the apartment building is being abandoned, he heads out and manages to get himself adopted by a dog, Mamochka, who lives with her four young puppies and two older offspring. The novel tells the story of his life with the dogs and of what happens when he, four years later, comes to the attention of humans, specifically two scientists/doctors working in a children’s rehabilitation centre.

The descriptions of life in the lair are pretty visceral: 
This [a rat] was, he decided, his favourite food. He chewed through the slippery ribcage to its soft centre, keeping its head in his fist to make sure Black Sister didn't crunch through it and eat his treasure.
If you don't like dogs (and even if you do), these and similar descriptions can be particularly confronting - but, the characters are so strongly drawn and the story so compelling that we all, regardless of our attitude to dogs, found we wanted to keep reading.

Our main questions, in the end, focused on the scientists - their characterisation, their role in the novel. Some felt they were more successfully realised and integrated into the novel than others. But, they do of course raise the central question: 
Would Romochka have been "better off living with dogs than with humans”?
The novel, then, teases out what it means to be human and, overall, humans (humanity) do not come out of it well, though of course there are humans who show love and care. Without Mamochka, however,  Romochka is unlikely to have survived and this is a sobering thing for us to consider.

It was an interesting discussion but that's about all I'll report. It's a month since we met and I can't put my hands on my notes. I'm sure I've misrepresented some of the tenor of the discussion and would love to be corrected by those who remember more or something different. Go on, you can do it!

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