The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser

05/09/08, Time Magazine Asia

Michelle de Kretser’s first novel, The Rose Grower, was set in Revolutionary France; her second, The Hamilton Case, which won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Encore Award, in colonial Ceylon. With her latest, The Lost Dog, she visits contemporary Australia and mid-twentieth-century India. The span of globetrotting mirrors de Kretser’s own life: born in Sri Lanka, she migrated to Australia when she was 14 and has lived there since.

The Lost Dog tells the stories of two people, Tom Loxley and Nelly Zhang. Tom, a divorced Anglo-Indian literary scholar who lives in Melbourne, has lost his dog in the vast wilderness of the Australian bush while he is out there, finishing a book on Henry James and the uncanny, in the holiday home of his friend, Nelly Zhang. Nelly, an artist who lives and works in a disused Victorian textile mill, called the Preserve, in a ‘post-industrial’ part of the city, fashions elusive, compelling works out of salvaged objects and bric-a-brac; they are concerned ‘with what was discarded and ephemeral yet caught in the tatters of memory’. She also paints canvases, has them painstakingly photographed, then (supposedly) destroys the originals, mounting an exhibition of only these photographs.

Over eight days, first Tom, then Tom and Nelly together, look for the (unnamed) dog. But these eight days compress nearly a century of recollected histories of several lives in India. They include Tom’s memories of growing up in India and the family’s immigration to Australia, and the stories of Tom’s father, the Englishman Arthur Loxley, and Arthur’s Eurasian wife, Iris de Souza. Iris, now an arthritic and incontinent eighty-two-year old, living on the untender mercies of her sister-in-law, Audrey, is becoming an intractable problem for her son, Tom. Meanwhile, Tom’s deepening attraction for Nelly can only find an outlet in a desultory project he begins on a work about her art.

There is also a mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Felix Atwood, the man who Nelly used to be married to and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances? In keeping with its pervasive and carefully modulated echoing of James, especially of his open-ended and slippery ghost stories, this is a book full of hauntings, of spectres, ghosts, doubles, reflections, revenants. They stalk the two types of art or mimetic representation that the book brings into contact with each other: Tom’s, in language; Nelly’s, in images. They also mark the lives and memories of the characters and, crucially, the narrator’s own discourse, for one of the things that de Kretser has undertaken is a kind of psychogeography of contemporary Australia and that, after all, is the study of strata of memory and ghostly presences, of the accreted traces the past leaves behind on landscapes, places, objects, individual and collective lives.

This is an uncompromisingly literary (and literate) book: ferociously intelligent, allusive, unflinching in its probing of the question, ‘What relation does the individual have to history?’, equally intransigent and undeluded with its oblique, sometimes scathing answers. A book such as this, so preternaturally attuned to listening to ‘the patient rage of history’, is a layered palimpsest, a forensic dissection of the contrast between the free-floating, atemporal anarchy of the oblivion-prone modern and the ways in which ‘tiny punctures in the now-scape of the present allowed the past entry’.

The relentless transitions to flashback are not always smoothly effected, and de Kretser’s appropriation of the discourse of literary critical theory can occasionally bring a jarring register to the domain of fiction, but even these jagged edges are spellbinding, because so intelligent, constantly forcing us to look under the skin of things. There are all kinds of terrors lurking within the heart of the book – these are for the reader to discover – but the one that is most palpable is the undeniable fact that this book is touched, like Rilke’s ‘terrible angel’, by the terror of greatness.