'The Dogs of Littlefield' by Suzanne Berne is the second of my random pick at the library. Her Orange Prize winner 'A Crime in the Neighbourhood' was one of my very early blog posts, followed by 'The Ghost at the Table' the following year, both of which I really enjoyed, so I had no hesitation in picking this up.
You should known I hate dogs. I don't say that lightly because I don't use the word hate often. This predates my employment as a postie and goes all the way back to childhood. I cannot get my head around why people love dogs, and why most people who own them do not even bother to train them properly. Margaret in this book is one of those people. So the story opens with an incident of dog poisoning and a conflict within a small village community when the local dog owners petition the council to have an 'off-leash' park. The death of the dog made me concerned that the dog owners were going to be the characters I was supposed to identify and sympathise with, and that was never going to happen.
Fortunately as the winter progresses the story introduces us to the whole community (I was concerned I was going to have to remember all the dogs names as well as the people) and Margaret, Bill and Julia become the focus of our attention. We watch them through the hedge with Dr Clarice Watkins, a visiting academic, who decides to make this most-desirable-place-to-live village and its occupants the object of her study. I can understand her interest: you see these news articles about the best places to live, and wonder if the people who live there have charmed lives, but of course, they don't. They may not have the crime and the unemployment but they have the same worries and troubles as the rest of us. So we sit back and watch as Margaret and Bill's crumbling relationship reaches its crisis point, they struggle to keep up a front of normality, and the dead dogs become some kind of weird metaphor for unacknowledged anxieties. But as much as Margaret and Bill's marriage, it is Margaret's relationship with her daughter Julia that is under scrutiny. No wonder she is a mess .... :
"Margaret played the piano for an hour every morning in the living room of her big yellow Victorian house. Something classical and melancholy. Afterwards she moved back and forth past the tall uncurtained windows, picking up books, dishes, clothing, whatever everyone else had left behind in their rush to school or work. She walked her big black dog, got in and out of her silver station wagon. Her clothes were loose-fitting, tasteful, middle-aged: beige, gray or black, brightened by a patterned scarf or an arty hand-knitted cardigan. In the afternoons, when it was time for Julia to return home from school, she stood at the living room windows looking out towards the street until Julia turtled up the sidewalk under her enormous red backpack.
Almost always, Margaret opened the front door even before Julia had gained the steps, each time smiling and saying something that did not arrest Julia's passage, or even cause her to look up. Sometimes Margret continued to stand in the doorway for another moment or two after Julia had disappeared inside, still smiling, looking into the street." (p.49-50)
In fact parenting in general is put under the spotlight. I liked this one, it sums up the superficiality of many of the social interactions:
"Outside on the sidewalk Boris was barking again. Then he quit barking and began to howl. George offered to go out and check on him.
'I'm sure he's fine,' said Emily.
'But what is it's an emergency?' Nicholas was still fixated in the missed cell phone call.
Emily gave George another look of comic exasperation.
'Then the emergency will have to call someone else.'
He watched this exchange with disappointment. 'Performance parenting' is how Tina used to describe it. Seeking to charm listeners in public with one's patience and good humour, using one's child as a foil. Had George not been there, Emily would have told Nicholas to be quiet or no ice cream and that would be the end of it." (p.94-5)
There are burst of descriptive passages that seem deliberately designed to make everything ordinary. She does have a slight tendency to tell you what colour everything is, something which, once you have noticed it, becomes annoying but then entertaining as you keep an eye out for them:
"The leaves of Littlefield had turned red, yellow and deep bronze, drifting across glowing green lawns, onto hedges and doorsteps and the gleaming roofs of parked cars. As they walked to school, children ran to catch falling leaves before they hit the ground. In the collective gardens, purple aster and ragweed bloomed where the gardeners quit weeding and the pumpkins were fat and orange. Soccer season had reached its apex and in the afternoons squads of girls in yellow jerseys, black shorts and black knee socks sprinted back and forth in the park, while coaches blew whistles and soccer balls flew in the bright air. Houses, stop signs, bicycle fenders, all wore a precise gleaming look, a clarity brought on by the cool dry weather, and in the evenings the light turned gold as it was gathered into the harlequin trees, caught within nets of branches and leaves." (p.42)
Here's another, but I like the way George (the 'sexist male novelist') is thinking about words even as he thinks them:
"Even now her skin looked sallow against the musty red upholstery of the chair, especially compared to the creamy flesh of the magnolia blossoms just opening outside the window. She had removed the raincoat to reveal a pale pink blouse with pink cloth covered buttons, darker pink lace at the collar. A thin gold necklace glinted at her neck and from her ears dangled jade beads set in gold filigree caps. Judging by the earrings and the lace on her blouse, her fay hair pulled back onto a clip, George saw that she had arrayed herself scrupulously this morning. He did not know from whence the words 'arrayed' and 'scrupulously' had come - they seemed to have blown in through the door when he opened it for Margaret, along with whence and a few yellow catkins that now lay like caterpillars on the braided rug in the hall."
Having lived amongst them for nearly a year Clarice Watkins departs, but I liked that she fails to capture what she came to study. We get little glimpses of her research and although this passage is full of trite clichés she is at least ready to acknowledge that her own assumptions and prejudices about the residents of Littlefield don't really say anything about the subtlety of the human condition:
"But the problems of Margaret Downing were all too obvious: the ennui of a loveless marriage, resulting in attempts to connect with external sources of emotional intensity: elaborate seasonal decorations; sentimental German music played endlessly on the piano; and, of course, the banal affair with a sexist male novelist, whose emphasis on sports culture epitomised the phallocentric world that simultaneously rejected and enslaved her, leading to the inevitable emphasis on youthful appearance amid the decline of middle age - blonde salon highlights, yoga classes, skin coddled daily with serums and moisturisers that cost as much as the yearly income of a bean farmer in Rajasthan - all adding up to the worst kind of social blight: the completely self-absorbed human being." (p.240)
What I enjoyed about the book is the way it blends the mundane with the existential, in watching the the characters you are lead to musing over what it's all really about and what their purpose in life is, and a suitably enigmatic ending, leaving Margaret in a state of continued uncertainty.