Book Review: A Loving Faithful Animal

While the fulcrum hours of Josephine Rowe’s first novel-length work of fiction, A Loving, Faithful Animal, run from the morning of the last day of 1990 into the dawn of the first day of 1991, the past and future, near and distant, bear heavily upon them.

It’s been almost a month since explosively–violent Vietnam War veteran Jack Burroughs shot through. It’s not the first time he’s left behind Evelyn and his daughters, Lani and Ru, but this time it looks as if he’ll be gone for good, set off by the savaging death of the family dog, Belle, apparently by the near–mythological black panther that is said to roam the farms around their central Victorian home. The hours into the New Year are watched over through the baton–passing perspectives of the novel’s five principals. Twelve–year–old Ru, in all her reflexive interiority, rides the bike her uncle Les has fixed up for her and smokes her absent father’s tobacco; Evelyn recalls her injured, battered, regretful loss of self in the 17 years since she first took off with Jack; Jack falls across the page in fragments of military bureaucratese, imprinted with war memories and barely-there presence; Lani, the teenage-rebel-in-motion, crashes headlong into her own coming life at a New Year’s party; and while Les is given a choice about whether or not to intervene in his brother’s life and his own complicated part in it, he unexpectedly makes a discovery that might, symbolically at least, lay the past to rest. Rowe’s novel occupies something of the same national narrative space as George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. Here, instead of the long shell–shocked smudge of WWI, it’s the post–traumatic intergenerational wake of the Vietnam War that insinuates itself into the lives of the family. Says the index–fingerless Les of his brother: “Jack had come back home as himself but with the war in him like some dormant, cancer-like sickness, busy at some cellular level.” Rowe refuses the ease of staring too long and too hard at its most difficult events. Instead she offers half-glances that are realised with a care for language, treated as both porcelain-thin and robust, that is recognisable from her shorter fiction. In psychoanalytic terms the novel trades on the near-paradox of narrating what is repressed: circling about the family that is unable to either definitively confront or to leave behind those events that have most powerfully shaped it. The un–narrated violence that is visited on the dog by the elusive panther (an echo here of Julia Leigh’s The Hunter and its obsession with laying eyes on the last thylacine) might operate as a mirror for Jack’s own violence. Just the same it might be something uncomfortably closer still that too–perfectly matches Jack’s fragmented progression through his sliced–in–two life, before and after Vietnam, and its terrifying hallucinatory surprises: “A darkness there was no climbing out of. Fists sinking deep into mud walls. But then the dream ended and it was her body that was so soft.” This slantedness of the telling is also felt in the nebulousness of time. While Ru’s is an experiential narrative told in the ongoing present tense – “After the sound of the engine dies away you climb down, putting a hand on your bike as though to reassure it” – it presents a sudden, giddy reminder that the future has already come to pass: “Years from now, you will try to explain it. Lying on your back in someone’s bed, attempting to shape it with your hands so that they might be able to see you better.” It’s this layering of time from sentence to sentence, section to section, deepened as well by slips into memory and into a moment of transcendent lyricism, that gives this short novel its surprising density. Just as in the best modernists – I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves – there’s a lot of perspectival layering here that the reader is invited to swim through, to contain, to reassemble, perhaps even with the aim of coming to bear some of the weight of its traumatic totality. Author: Josephine Rowe Publisher: UQP

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