Book review: A Dog’s Perfect Christmas by W. Bruce Cameron

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

If ever a Christmas called for some feel good love and wonder, it’s this one.

Coming at the tail end of a year of pandemic, which shows no sign of bowing out gracefully for a 2021 unfettered by sickness and death, Christmas 2020 feels like it needs all the help it can get to make everyone feel even halfway decent.

But there is feel good and then there is FEEL GOOD, the former giving you a warm inner glow of peace and goodwill happiness that is nice while it lasts but vanishingly ephemeral while the latter seems happy to stick around and reminder that Christmas can really permanently change things or, at the very least, provide the perfect opportunity for real, lasting transformation to take place.

A Dog’s Perfect Christmas by W. Bruce Cameron (A Dog’s Purpose) sits snugly and with great meaning and hopefulness in the latter category, a perfect example of heartwarming festive storytelling that makes the halls feel decked and the chestnuts roast on an open fire without once feeling like an overdose of giddily-coloured candy canes.

There is an expectation with books like this that trumpet their seasonal redemptive hugs and reassurance credentials like a red Santa suit tied to a flagpole that they will so treacly and saccharine sweet that you may not emerge from a sugar coma until long after the reindeer have cancelled their way off your rooftop.

“The next morning Ello opened her grandfather’s door with her heart pounding. He hadn’t responded to her light tapping, and she was terrified he had Died In The Night and she would be the one to see it.

Of all the emotions that had been rampaging through her system like drunk rioters since she’d turned thirteen—the fear, the anxiety, the angst, the rage—this was the worst. This … dread. The worst, and the most common. She felt it about everything—school, her clothes, friends—everything.” (P. 11)

But A Dog’s Perfect Christmas sidesteps this metaphorically festive caloric overload by grounding itself very much in the gritty certainties of family life.

It knows that young teenagers can be surly, snarky creatures but that they are also roiling in hormones and change unprecedented and may respond quite surprisingly given the circumstances.

And that grieving grandparents, lost in a hazy cloud of grief and pointlessness, might seem incapable of doing anything much but sitting in a room alone until they must step up, discovering in the process that maybe life is done with them yet and nor are they done with life.

Or that workaholic fathers, who love their wife and their kids (yes, even manic, yelling three-year-old twin boys) but aren’t sure how to express it in the practical manner needed, can turn not only their domestic situation around but their work life too.

Finally, that all many wives want is to be listened and heard, to have their concerns addressed in a way that actually means something and isn’t yet another hollow conversation on the road to crushing disappointment and gnawing inaction.

All this and a whole lot more insightful domesticity finds its way into the delightful storyline of A Dog’s Perfect Christmas and while there is a sense of things being neatly tied up with festively bright bows, that is earned because of the time Cameron takes into telling us the story of the much-beleaguered Goss family.

W. Bruce Cameron (image courtesy wbrucecameron.com)

While it is certainly no dark and harrowing exploration of the underbelly of American family life, and nor is it intended to be, A Dog’s Perfect Christmas does carry with it a well-told understanding of the hard realities of raising a family.

Everyone has their wish list of perfect circumstances, of loving, family dinners with sparkling conversation and unceasing expressions of love and support, of acts undertaken without fanfare but with practical outworking that changes things in ways big and small, of a Norman Rockwell perfection that makes all the slings and arrows of misfortune of the outside world fade away into inconsequential nothingness when you step inside the family home.

But rarely, if ever comes to pass, and A Dog’s Perfect Christmas walks in lock step with this sage appreciation of reality while never once acceding that this brokenness and loss is the end of the story.

Love, it acknowledges is in there too, and while it night be buried deep under the undone washing, the cranky rides to school and the meals delivered without appreciation, it is still there somewhere and all it takes is some inciting incident, or some smaller bonfires of adversity, to flush it out into the life-changing open.

The refreshing thing about A Dog’s Perfect Christmas, which really does have a major crisis at its heart and a cascade of smaller orbit it in varying degrees of awfulness and distress, is that when the love does its moment to shine it is not with more sentimentality that an overdone Christmas card.

“Juliana sighed. ‘When I woke up, and I couldn’t move a muscle, I was so terrified. They told me I’d get better, but how could I know that was true? I just felt paralyzed. And the only thing that got me through it was the fact that you were there to take care of me. Here I’d been thinking that you were so focused on your work that you didn’t give a hoot what happened to me, our marriage, or our children. And then I saw the opposite. I was wrong, and I know I hurt you with what I said at lunch a couple of weeks ago. I really wish I hadn’t done that.’

Their kiss was sweet, gentle and long.” (P. 268)

Rather than you get is a series of perfectly-pitched steps out of the morass to a life that isn’t perfect but which reflects the fact that the people in the Goss family, including wife Juliana who bears the weight of much of the dysfunction, really do love and care for each other and just need to come to appreciate how to express it.

They won’t ever do it perfectly – that is for romantic comedies, fairytales and neat-and-tidy Hallmark movies – but they will do it, flawed execution and all, and it will be glorious and wonderful and uplifting and good, even if not all the caring “I’s” are dotted and “T’s” crossed.

A Dog’s Perfect Christmas knows that what we want, in families or life generally is never going to fully find itself realised, and that’s to be expected, but that that doesn’t mean something approximating it can’t rise to the surface.

Yes, this all happens in this instance at the most wonderful time of the year, and that makes it feel all the more special and life affirming, but ti could quite equally happen any time if love is present, and it is in most cases, and family members are willing to step up and make it mean something.

This is a book that actually feels like its payoff is well and truly merited, that its characters haven’t just gone through a few middling shreds of trauma but have actually dealt with things that matter, that can uplift you and disappoint depending on which way they go.

Cameron has written a delightfully substantial piece of festive storytelling in A Dog’s Perfect Christmas which makes the heart sing and soul soar (and whose dog or dogs rather are presented and accounted for not the drivers of the story you might imagine) but not at the expense of a sense of groundedness and truth which makes all the eggnog-and-fruit-mince-pie moments feel all the more rewarding and sweeter.

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