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  • Aug 21, 2014
  • Updated: 5:08pm

The Lost Dog

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 August, 2008, 12:00am

The Lost Dog

by Michelle de Kretser

Vintage, HK$272

Award-winning Sri Lankan-Australian writer Michelle de Kretser has described herself as 'no minimalist'. Certainly, in her latest novel, The Lost Dog - a contender for this year's Man Booker Prize - images and ideas abound and collide in prose sumptuously laden with metaphors. Even as a particular phrase captures one's mind - the 'baroque ruins of a sunset' or 'an operetta of surprise' - one is struck by another.

At times there is a sense of discord as images jostle for space on the page. Yet the overall result is a desire to reread a paragraph or sentence, luxuriating in its shape and form.

The Lost Dog opens in the wild bushland of Australia. Tom Loxley is struggling to finish his manuscript on Henry James in his friend Nelly Zhang's holiday shack when his dog goes missing. From there the story shifts between mid-20th-century India, where Tom was born, and modern Australia.

Tom's search for his dog plays out against fragments of his past: his childhood in both countries, the disappointed lives of his parents, his failed marriage and his immediate past, which encompasses his relationship with the successful yet troubled artist Nelly. All the time a growing sense of mystery - a missing husband, missing artwork - propels one through the book.

De Kretser moved from Sri Lanka to Australia when she was 14. Little wonder then that Tom's ambiguous feelings for India and Australia ring so true. Her previous two highly acclaimed novels, The Rose Grower and The Hamilton Case, were historical works. This is the first of her books to be set in the modern era in and around a place she calls home, Melbourne.

De Kretser has proved she is exceedingly capable of delving into familiar territory and revealing its many layers and shades. She is particularly harsh on Australia's love affair with modernity and consumerism. Yet through her characters she shows how complex people are, moving the book beyond generalised, broad-brush themes.

She also has a fine ability to create a sense of place. The wild expanse of the Australian countryside, a dizzying, dense maze of bushland, can be as oppressive under her pen as the confines of Tom's childhood home, still inhabited by his mother Iris.

Iris is an intriguing, rather distressing, character. It is largely through her that de Kretser explores the twin themes of ageing and decay. Iris, growing old and arthritic, watches helplessly as her body takes more of her former life away from her. Offsetting her character is Tom's officious aunt Audrey, who indulges her charitable instincts in providing shelter for Tom's mother: 'Debit and credit were computed with decimal precision.'

De Kretser begins by quoting Henry James: 'The whole of anything can never be told.' To this end, no story in The Lost Dog is quite what it seems.

The Lost Dog is ultimately a love story, Tom's attraction for Nelly steadily growing and providing further impetus for the tale. Yet this is no conventional romance. And it is only with a complete reading of the story that its end can even be guessed.

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