Review | Monday 02 March 2009
Dog Boy’s violent, shocking and yet ultimately exhilarating ride has stirred emotions that I haven’t felt since reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Picking up a book that you know will take you on a bleak, desperate journey is easier said than done, unless the recompense is extraordinary and this book, by Australian author Eva Hornung (previously writing as Eva Sallis), is extraordinary. Dog Boy is more than a cautionary tale; this book holds a mirror to the world we live in and shows us humanity’s negligible hold and the unlikely places where it can be found.
Romochka, a four-year-old boy abandoned and starving, ventures out of a deserted apartment building into the freezing streets of Moscow with his missing mother’s words ringing in his ears. Don’t go near people. Don’t talk to strangers. Wandering the streets, the boy becomes lost and desperate. The only being he dares to approach is a feral dog and he follows her back to a den, lies down with her four pups, suckles and survives. And so this small boy crosses an unspeakable boundary, living with feral dogs in the basement of a tumble-down church on the outskirts of a modern city. He is given shelter, food and affection and he learns to survive as a dog and to become a member of the pack.
This retelling of the timeless tale of an innocent living among beasts does not shy away from detail. Until now, the mythology, folk tales and documented cases of children raised by animals offer an ideal, unsoiled vision; as clear as the lines of the bronze sculpture, the Capitoline Wolf, suckling Romulus and Remus. They say good writing is in the detail and Hornung plunges you into an oppressive, gritty, reeking dog world that is so convincing and so utterly believable that the smell and taste of this book will resonate long after you have turned the last page.
But don’t be put off. What begins as a confronting relationship between Romochka and the dogs, transforms into a thing of beauty, tenderness and compassion. The reader’s journey is such that you come to understand and identify with the boy’s transformation from abandoned child to ‘dogboy’ embedded in a complex pack structure. Hornung is no stranger to the themes that flow through this book: exile and belonging; sameness and otherness. But where her six previous novels, including the acclaimed Marsh Birds and the Vogel prize-winning book Hiam, examines these themes through migrant experience and cultural displacement, Dog Boy takes a step beyond and explores ideas of exile and belonging through the more universal themes of animal and human nature. It also challenges the reader to examine our own innate behavioral response when confronted with life or death decisions.
Hornung is a fascinating and courageous writer who brings a universal quality to Australian fiction. Her multicultural upbringing, passion for Arabic culture and active involvement in humanitarian work gives her writing a depth and relevance that is pertinent to our generation. Dog Boy is a unique and remarkable Australian novel and I highly recommend you read it.