Tom’s breath caught in anticipation.
‘That looks absolutely nice,’ said Iris.
I have absolutely given Australian fiction a hard time in the past, not least due to the abysmal way such books are introduced to school-age girls and boys. Every local author seemed, to my youthful narrow vision, to whitewash their pages in reflections on ghostly gums and the infinite character of the land. (I realise this introduction does no favours to any representation of my open-mindedness.) The seeming ubiquity of this trope, exacerbated by the limits of my school and local libraries, led me to believe that it was impossible to find Australian fiction the parameters of which were not set by the shoreline. (Cringe.)
Thus, it was with trepidation that I approached Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog. As a gift from voracious readers, though, I staved off this anxiety in anticipation of ‘what kind of a book’ someone else thought I might like to read. Imagine my feelings when the opening pages read: Afterwards, he would remember paddocks stroked with light. He would remember the spotted trunks of gum trees; the dog arching past to sniff along the fence.
Yes, I was sorely vexed.
Sticking to my guns, and aware of the blurb’s promise of mid-twentieth century India, I continued past the initial paragraphs. There I met Tom Loxley, product of the union between an Indian beauty and an ignominiously English father. De Kretser’s description of the relationship between Iris de Souza and Arthur Loxley is skilfully wrought, with a lightness of touch that belies the unaccommodating acuteness of post-colonial India from which the Loxleys finally move: casual racism, familial incompetency, the avalanching phenomenon of emigration.
Hence Tom Loxley wrestling with the disobliging legacy of Henry James: in his office at university, at home in Melbourne, and finally in a cabin in the bush, which is where the dog gets lost. The cabin belongs to Nelly Zhang, an artist whose reticence, talent and history have an exquisite appeal. De Kretser’s greatest success is how she figures the mystery of the urban fey; Tom’s inability to secure any solid understanding of Nelly is foregrounded by the sporadic filtering of details through sensationalism, assumption and jealousy, those great guardians of accuracy. Contrasted with the dog’s disappearance, this much less tangible pursuit of the truth proves no less urgent and at least as compelling.
Considering the lyricism with which De Kretser conveyed this multi-generational tale, it was with no regret that I renounced my antipathy for Australian fiction. Even a sometimes awkward approach to dialogue enhanced her considered inquiry into personhood, revealing conversation for its brutal, dissembling self. Summoning brevity, empathy and familiarity to her aid, De Kretser has rendered the landscape of the Australian psyche with regard to all its sources and betrayers.