A Loving Faithful Animal is a striking debut novel by Josephine Rowe, who has published collections of short stories and poetry in her native Australia. It opens on a hot dry New Years Eve in 1990 in Victoria State with a poor rural family struggling with endings and beginings.
Jack Burroughs, a violent Vietnam War vet, has left his wife and two daughters some weeks back, probably for good this time, and his family is trying to adjust to the change. His wife Evelyn gets a Christmas card from her sister with “It is Better to Have Loved and Lost Than to Live With a Psycho Forever” on it.
The older daughter, 16-year-old Lani, has thrown herself into a world of drugs and sex and hopes that this time Evelyn won’t try to hunt Jack down and drag him back. “It’s so embarrassing,” she complains, “he’s just going to belt her around again.”
Ru, the sensitive introverted 12-year-old daughter struggles with her feelings of loyalty to both parents, trying to understand her mother’s attachment to Jack while still hoping that her father will give her the love she craves.
In the background is Jack’s half-brother, Les, whom Jack has nicknamed “Tetch,” a bachelor handyman who has his own set of psychological problems. Les turns up and starts to clean up the mess in the garage, secretly wishing he could repair all of the damage that Jack has done to his family.
Ru, Evelyn, Lani, Jack and Les each get a chapter told from their point of view and we begin to see how each of them has not only been affected by the shattered family dynamic but also the ways, often unhealthy, that they have used to cope with the chaos.
The final chapter is told from an adult Ru’s point of view and finally hints at some form of healing.
The tone of the novel is unsentimental and full of crisp descriptions of the parched southern Australian landscape which mimics the dried out emotional lives of the family. Rowe is also very adept at describing the odours of things, often balancing hints of death and decay with earthy fecundity.
There is also, as the title suggests, a fair amount of animal imagery in the novel. One of the catalysts for Jack’s departure is the death of a stray dog, Belle, that he has rescued and shows more love for than he does for his own family.
Belle has been mauled by a feral cat that has emerged from the forest, which Jack associates with a panther that he smuggled back to Australia from his Vietnam tour and had to give to a zoo. Jack has a panther tattooed on his arm. The lurking violence and the death of love are all mixed up in some awful events that Jack experienced in the war.
The adult Ru hears about a recent study in “genetic memory” where rats are taught to associate fear with the smell of cherry blossoms. The rats offspring, without having been taught, instinctively cower in fear at the smell of cherry blossoms.
This triggers a revery in Ru: “The tail of something fearsome disappearing around a corner. What’s hiding in there? What are you so afraid to look at? But your fingernails spike your palms before you get a chance to follow. At the first whisker of something you might remember, you scarper back into the corner of your cage.”
A Loving Faithful Animal is a sad but courageous book full of perceptive insights into human nature and the seductive pull of violence.
Vietnam looms in the background, the Gulf War as well, but it all comes down to a human scale reminding me of the old truism, “Hurt people hurt people.” Rowe shows us that this is true, but there can also be a road back.
A Loving Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe, Catapult (Raincoast) 165pp.