This is a review, of Josephine Rowe's A Loving, Faithful Animal.
Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A loving, faithful animal, should be consumed slowly and thoughtfully. Each sentence, so carefully positioned, deserves time and attention. When you read this book, allow yourself to sit with Rowe’s lyricism. Let them climb over you. Let them make you feel something, even if you can’t quite pinpoint what that something is. Let Rowe’s words get underneath your skin. Let them stay there for a while. Feel their impact, and then exhale, breathe. Let go, whilst holding onto something you hadn’t anticipated finding, because this book will open something up inside you. It’s a work full of startling characterisation, powerful imagery, and difficult moments.
The story, at only 197 pages, delivers a lot. It’s a multilayered examination into dysfunctional family life. This is a topic that gets covered often, particularly in modern Australian literature. Yet Rowe writes with a refreshing perspective and this book subverts a genre we think we know, allowing us to find a new story with original voices.
The Vietnam War has undone and broken Ru and Lani’s father, Jack, into pieces. He is violent and unstable. The further we are pulled away from his traumatic Vietnam experiences, the clearer these effects become, on both Jack and the family. After an unpleasant New Year’s Eve incident, Jack leaves, seemingly for the final time.
The story begins in Ru’s, voice, from the second person point of view. It is Jack’s disappearance that fuels the novel, stretching out through years and contrasting points of views.
When your father left – the first week of December, freckles resurfacing across cheeks, the stink of insect repellent suffocating the kitchen – Aunt Stell sent a card that said It Is Better To Have Loved And Lost Than To Live With A Psycho Forever. Your mother liked it so much she put it up on top of the fridge and it stayed there, all through Christmas, the smallest of her small revenges, roosting amidst the cards with snow and camels and reindeer.
The story goes through each family member’s perspective, thus elevating the story to a higher level, creating contrast and multifaceted layers. These layers and various voices make for interesting and insightful prose. Possibly problematic for some readers, this is a technique that won’t work for everyone. Playing with voice and perspective can often be difficult as the reader can struggle to form a connection and it can be confusing to follow. However Rowe writes with an apparent effortless ability, creating clean, sharp prose.
Rowe also captures Australia, with honesty and depth, not afraid to depict the gritty and sometimes horrible country it is. This is something many Australian writers shy away from but Rowe tackles the truth, allowing us to fully submerge into the landscape she envisions.
Walking the dam wall at Maroondah. Jody holding her damp hair up off her sweaty neck. A scruffy white dog running after a car. Race days and sprinklers turning lazy circles. Road-tripping all the way up to Broken Bay to see Pat and Maile in oyster season, and the big moon hanging huge and leery above the Hawkesbury.
In one section of the book, we sit with Evelyn, Jack’s wife and the mother of their children for a period. This section is strikingly good. Rowe writes with a deep complexity, giving us characters we can immerse ourselves into whilst still relating. Domestic violence is incredibly challenging to get right but Rowe takes on this challenge with empathy and a keen perception on what might motivate a person to stay.
But she could never quite bring herself to. Run out on him like that. And it was never as simple as money. It was never as simple as pride, because she’s not sure she’s never had much of that either. Or if she does, it hasn’t turned out to be worth much, not when it comes right down to it.
Much of Rowe’s power comes through her skill to take details and distil them down into quieter, simpler moments that evoke hidden feelings and pull them out of you. These moments aren’t always sustained and maybe they don’t need to be, but the sudden change of tone and timbre can lift you out of the text.
A loving, faithful animal is a quiet, tender, moving novel that portrays flawed but achingly real people. It is a stunning first novel, deeply moving, and worth spending a few days reading and re-reading. Definitely recommended.
Have you read this book? If not, check out an extract here:
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Katelin Farnsworth is a writer from Melbourne. She’s currently working on her first novel ‘All That Blue’ and has been published in various Australian journals. She studies Creative Writing at Deakin University.