Red Dog, Red Dog – Patrick Lane

The BookDepository

 Long listed for the 2008 Giller Prize

Red Dog, Red Dog has intrigued me for a while. A few people were convinced it would make the 2009 Booker long list and so I almost picked it up last year. For some reason it never quite made it to the top of the TBR pile then, but almost a year on I finally got round to reading it.

Red Dog, Red Dog is set in a small town in British Columbia, Canada. The book centres on one troubled family: a violent husband, a depressed mother and her two troubled sons.  Much of the book is narrated by their dead baby sister, which sounds a bit weird but it actually worked very well. The book follows their lives over the course of one week in 1958. The short time scale meant that there wasn’t room for a complex plot, but their relationships and emotions were well explored.

My enjoyment of this book fluctuated massively as I read it. Some scenes captivated me, drawing me into the troubled world and creating a strong emotional bond between me and the boys; but then I’d read several chapters in a row without becoming involved at all. The writing became very passive and I began to lose interest. I think this was a deliberate plot devise as the writing kept switching between total engagement and boredom, but I found it very frustrating.

The tone of the book was quite dark:

The dead came crowding in, each with a story, what happened and when, who was there and why. Most faded into fragments, faint murmurs, the stories rising as if from narrow caves, the sounds distorted, vowels drawn out into echoes, consonants clipped and rattling like a snake’s tail whirring in the sagebrush, the same kind of warning, the dead telling me things that they thought I needed to know, tales from so far back they no longer had any meaning except to the ones who told them.

The whole book was quite emotionally draining so I recommend that you are in the right frame of mind before attempting it.

Overall, I’m going to sit on the fence on this one. It had moments of brilliance alongside some very dull sections. I think you’ll have to make up your own mind!


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  1. I’m sorry you found this one so uneven, Jackie. It’s not like you to sit on the fence! I’m even more curious now and hope that the book makes it to the top of my TBR this month.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I’ll be interested to read what you think of this one. I think you’ll probably enjoy it a bit more than I did. I hope you get to it soon.

  2. Andreea says:

    I don’t think that this book is for me, but thanks for your great review, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Andreea, I understand why you might not want to read a book like this. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. I found this too depressing for me to be able to form any unbiased opinions. It just bogged me down. I knew he was writing pretty, poetically, but it was just too bleak. I don’t mind sad books, but this was quite devoid of anything that would make you feel good. Surprisingly, though, my review was not so negative. I was trying too hard to be objective. But really I wouldn’t recommend this to people who get easily depressed like me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I can see why you’d find this depressing, but found it strange that you loved De Niro’s Game and not this. I found De Niro’s Game much more distressing. This one had too many passive sections to get me down. The narration by the baby meant that I was a bit distanced from the tragedy, not feeling the boy’s emotions. De Niro’s Game was devoid of happiness too. I scored the books equally – Why did you love one and not the other?

  4. Kathleen says:

    I’ve read such “heavy” stuff lately that a book like this will probably have to wait awhile before I am ready.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, This is quite easy to read, so not heavy in that sense, but it is a bit depressing. I can understand why you’d want to wait.

  5. Belle says:

    This is probably too dark for my tastes, but “The dead came crowding in, each with a story” is incredibly evocative!

    1. Jackie says:

      Belle, I loved that quote – reminded me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Shame it only lasted one page!

  6. Jenny says:

    I like this excerpt, but I’m not so sure about narrators that are dead. Having said that, of course, I remembered I loved the Book Thief, which was narrated by Death, so I probably shouldn’t base my book choices on that.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I think I’m discovering that dead people make great narrators. They can see everything going on, but also know history, possibly before the characters themselves were alive. I think I will be more likely to read a book with a dead narrator in future.

  7. Violet says:

    I don’t think this is one book I would want to read. I cannot handle depressing unless it’s in memoirs. I know, weird :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I do understand what you mean. Memoirs are real, so it seems more justifyable to allow them to depress you.

  8. LizF says:

    I read this last year and know what you mean. While I could appreciate the quality of the writing, and there is no doubt of Patrick Lane’s talent, I gave up before the end because it was making me feel incredibly bleak. I have to confess to looking at the end and decided that I couldn’t see any benefit to putting myself through the misery – wussy I know but there seemed to be a lot of uncompromising books around at the time and I couldn’t stand any more!

  9. Sandra says:

    I never find anything I read depressing, no matter how bleak. I read this and thought that it just missed being a great story. It was a solid enough story and I enjoyed it. Well written and all. Perhaps it’s one of those that requires a second reading. I did appreciate reading your thoughts on it. Thank you.

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