A Loving, Faithful Animal
by Josephine Rowe
Published 2017 by Catapult
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1936787579
By Noah Sanders
Josephine Rowe’s outstanding debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, follows a poor, Australian family marred by the pain inflicted on them by a now non-existent father figure. The father, Jack, is comparable to a natural disaster, a powerful hurricane perhaps, leveling everything in its path, before evaporating into nothing. There is a sense of aftermath to the book—the 160 mile winds have faded, the roofs have been torn off and now all that’s left is for those who’ve survived to survey the damage done, to reflect upon what happened and how they got there, and to try and figure out how to move on. Rowe places the story in the hands of the women left in Jack’s wake—the daughters, Ru and Lani, and their mother, his wife, Evelyn. There is a fluidity to the time, the reader stuck in the present with these damaged characters, but sent forward and back to see just how far the effects of their father extend into their lives; just how long it took for him to really jump into the deep end. It is a devastating piece of literature crafted by an exceptionally talented writer who tears the lives of her characters asunder and then charts their path back together.
The book starts after Jack has departed once again, this time for good, from his wife, two daughters, and brother, Les (Tetch). There is a sense of shock in the early chapters, each of them charting the effects of the departure through the eyes of another family member. They loll between locations and people, drinking and smoking, fucking and fighting, trying to find a foothold in the aftermath. Trying to see what the landscape looks like, now that they may have received the all-clear. Rowe buries a sense of happiness in her characters, pockmarked by the sadness of not only their father leaving, but of the scars—physical and mental—he’s left them with. As Evelyn says, “Jack’s voice there, in her head. He’s poisoned everything.”
There’s no love lost between the characters, at least on the surface. Jack’s abusive presence has forced them against each other, survivors in a jungle, survival instincts humming, everyone looking out for only themselves. Underneath it though—and Rowe exposes the deep darks and high highs that exist beneath her character’s tough, sunburnt skin—the family clings to whatever they still think is good in their lives. For Jack, it’s Belle—a family dog torn apart by a panther before the book starts, the catalyst for his departure—an animal loyal to him. “That was something,” he says, “To be someone’s best thing.” In his absence, the rest of the family struggles to define if anything is still their “best thing,” if their experience up to now hasn’t damaged them so greatly that there is nothing left to give. Some of them flee, some of them nest, all of them, slowly, start to heal. The author doesn’t allow her characters to be solely victims, she digs in deep into what drives Evelyn—born into wealth—to stay through the countless beatings, the destitution, the general downward arc of her life, and what her decision does to her and to her daughters.
Rowe is, and this can’t be said enough, a remarkable writer. Her prose is a mixture of Denis Johnson’s tough guy prattle and the deft, character painting of Stephen King. These are seriously fucked up people, and Rowe has no problem putting that on the page, of scraping away at their sorest spots to slowly expose them to her readers. What Rowe is able to pack into such a short book (162 pages) is incredible—she builds a broken down world filled with living, breathing humans in what some authors would call an opening act. Her writing is somehow both visceral and dreamlike, alive but floating in a state of sustained shock. “Then there’s only the three long strips of road, paddock, sky, waving like a tricolor flag,” Rowe writes, describing Ru’s bike ride into the desolate land around her house, “and it’s as though no time passes, like sleeping without dreams or dreaming awake, until the road runs out in crooked star pickets and snarls of wire.”
Each character gets a chapter—Ru, the youngest daughter, gets two—including Jack and this is the only bump in otherwise seamless book. By giving Jack a chapter—the destructive force at the center of the book—Rowe takes away some of the power of the characters left to figure everything out. Instead of a reflection of pain and abuse we get in early chapters with Ru and Evelyn, Jack’s harsh description of the war and of his romance with his future wife seems an intrusion. It pulls the focus on how to move forward and places it on why they need to, which in a book as harsh and merciless as A Loving, Faithful Animal can be, there’s absolutely no need. The character that’s formed through the eyes of those he’s damaged is much more powerful.
This is a small flaw though in an otherwise incredible piece of work. Rowe has managed to take one of the great tropes of literature—the shattered family—and inject it with a blast of edgy, searing emotional fire. If it was only her writing that was as good as it is—and it is phenomenal—this would be a book to devour in a sitting, every word slowly savored. But her skill at description and setting is merely the gift-wrapping for a book that quietly, yet savagely, paints a picture of what it’s like to survive, and what it takes to continue doing so.