by Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing 2016
Between A Wolf And A Dog by Georgia Blain
Outside, the rain continues unceasing; silver sheets sluicing down, the trees and shrubs soaking and bedraggled, the earth sodden, puddles overflowing, torrents coursing onwards, as the darkness slowly softens with the dawn.
Ester is a family therapist with an appointment book that catalogues the anxieties of the middle class: loneliness, relationships, death. She spends her days helping others find happiness, but her own family relationships are tense and frayed. Estranged from both her sister, April, and her ex-husband, Lawrence, Ester wants to fall in love again. Meanwhile, April is struggling through her own directionless life; Lawrence’s reckless past decisions are catching up with him; and Ester and April's mother, Hilary, is about to make a choice that will profoundly affect them all.
Taking place largely over one rainy day in Sydney, and rendered with the evocative and powerful prose Blain is known for, Between a Wolf and a Dog is a celebration of the best in all of us — our capacity to live in the face of ordinary sorrows, and to draw strength from the transformative power of art. Ultimately, it is a joyous tribute to the beauty of being alive.
The accolades and glowing reviews received for ‘Between A Wolf And A Dog’ are well deserved. It is a gentle scalpel to the human condition and contains descriptions of everyday sights and landscapes that are thoroughly realised and penetrate deep down to the intrinsic element of the tree or vista being described. It’s the descriptions of someone who observes closely because they understand the brevity of life and the necessity of living in the present to see beauty.
The Marcel family is depicted in all its contradictory human beauty and imperfection across three generations. The structure is well judged interweaving key moments from the past to develop the present and its nuanced layer of hurt, betrayal and devastation. The device of making the central character a therapist allows the privileging of emotions, feelings and relationships. The use of the 4 client / patients allow this to be further elaborated in vignettes which echo or develop that seen in the central Marcel family and the three female adult characters and estranged husband.
The title is the inversion of the French expression: ‘l’heure entre chien et loup’. It is their equivalent of the ‘witching hour’ or dusk, where shadows make identities and shapes indistinct. I would argue that all the characters in the novel are in this witching hour, in this liminal space where they are all changing shedding baggage, identities, patterns, thought processes, responsibilities, careers, memories and even life.
Ester, as the therapist character, is given the most raw insights into relationships and the pressures of living in the now. The name Ester has Biblical (a Queen who risked her life for her people) and Scientific (a compound produced by the reaction between an Acid and an alcohol) meaning and connotations. In the novel she acts to protect her twin daughters and also reacts to the chaos created by Lawrence (acid?) and April (alcohol?). Ester’s mother, Hilary, the filmmaker, is given the most holistic understanding of the broad brush of life and loving and is also the character who reflects on morality and choices.
Lawrence and April are the flawed twin characters of the novel who operate from pleasure without responsibility and their impulsiveness is used as a catalyst for destruction and upheaval to push the novel both emotionally and narratively. Both undertake narrative arcs though and are changed at the end of the novel.
As well as a fine dissection of the personal the book takes aim at the political. Lawrence is a morally fraught political pollster. For example the discussion of manipulation, truth and media manipulation seen in the premier issue of our time:
‘... the results of a rival poll making headlines. The issue is climate change and whether the government should do more to combat the effects ... Besides, what does it matter what people think? What does it fucking matter? The world is dying, and we are still asking the opinions of every person on the street while failing to listen to what our experts are telling us.’
I found this novel to be poignant and humane with a great respect for the challenges of life and selfhood. It’s been shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize a fitting acknowledgment of Blain’s literary achievement and contribution.
By Sarah Ridout, Le Chateau, Echo Publishing