Book review: Dog Days by Ericka Waller

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Humanity doesn’t do well with brokenness.

Not so much the being in it, although god knows none of us like to loiter there for too long, but with the concept of brokenness itself, that troubling, unsettling sense that life is not as perfect or idyllic as we want it to be.

Or often WILL it to be.

Unpalatable though it often is to think about, let alone live it, Ericka Waller makes a profoundly poignant and persuasive case in her novel Dog Days that brokenness may not be quite the existential dead-end we believe it to be.

It is, she argues in three separate but often intertwining stories that each have a broken person at their empathetic heart, a place that can lead to somewhere although different, and quite often, against all expectations at the time, better.

She is frank however in admitting that while you’re up to your neck in the very worst of times it can be hard to envisage things ever improving, and that the small shoots of hope that do spring up, often fall victim to a grinding sense that nothing will ever get better and that your ruptured idyll is where you will likely end your days.

Throughout the beautifully written, poetically rich and authentically human delight that is Dog Days, there are a great many times where hope rises up, comes crashing over peoples’ defenses only to find itself pushing up against rebuilt and reinforced protective walls that seem determined to keep promising change at bay.

“Dan is seven minutes late to work. His new patient isn’t due until ten, but he likes to have a full hour to study the referral noted beforehand and he worries he might miss something vital with the seven minutes he’s lost. Even after two years and seven months, Dan is still waiting for someone to realize that he is entirely unsuited to being a counsellor. Waiting makes him nervous. It always has. His mother called him an impatient child, but it wasn’t that. It was the not-knowing, the unforeseen in any circumstance. He was not impatient, he was uneasy.” (P. 11)

You see this play out in all three, startling rich and tender, funny and heartfelt narratives, each of them, rather happily for the reader and for the characters does not end up quite where you expect them to.

Take the story of George, an older man who has just lost Ellen, his wife of many decades, to cancer and who is even more unhappy than usual about his now unexpectedly lonely place in life, bereft of his beloved’s infinite patience and care, and left with only his cricket and a busybodying neighbour Betty, a one-woman force of cheerfully unflappable nature who is adamant that her irascible charge will rejoin the human race.

George, a man as unloved as his wife was near-universally adored by just about everyone in their town from the cafe owner to the pharmacy staff, is having none of it, for quite some time, and honestly Waller does a very good job of making you wonder if he is ever going to waver in the face of Betty’s deliriously unstoppable cheerfulness.

The thing is George is broken, he is lost, and at no time, even when Betty convinces him to garden in the church allotment or finally go shopping for himself when all he wants is to wallow in misery, does a magic wand get waved and everything is fixed magically as if there was never pain or grief there in the first place.

Waller may fill Dog Days with a quirkily hopeful charm at times and richly memorable characters, but never once does she pretend that you can fix life JUST … LIKE … THAT.

Ericka Waller (image courtesy Twitter)

This realism extends to Lizzie too, living in a women’s refuge with her seven-year-old soccer-mad son Lenny whose trauma has seen her shut herself off from the world around her, ashamed it will see her scars and her searing loss of confidence in her ability to be a teacher, a sociable human being and sometimes, even a mum.

She finds herself opening a little when she begins walking the refuge’s dog Maud and when she gets to know her son’s teacher, Luke, a personable and capable young man who is thrilled to have found someone as knowledgable and engaged as Lizzie is at her facts articulating best.

But Lizzie is broken and while Waller allows her moments of levity and light, hers is a journey that goes through some dark places before ending up in a quite unexpected place.

The same goes for Dan, a counsellor with OCD who is skilled at helping other people escape their moribund lives but seemingly unable to jumpstart his own cosy but ossified life.

He has devoted dog Fitz of course and a safe world where disruptions are few and everything is ordered but which he, harbouring a secret he hasn’t imparted even to his cousin Luke, is actually desperate to escape if only he can be honest with himself.

That honesty comes bursting through in one counselling session with a particularly reticent client but again Waller does not offer a quick fix or perpetuate the lie, so beloved by Hollywood, that one momentous development fixes everything.

“George scoff so hard he almost spits out his teeth.

The receptionist watches them walk off and thinks how quickly George has replaced his lovely wife, and how sad it is that she dedicated her life to a man who didn’t seem to care about her at all.” (P. 194)

It doesn’t; life is far too complicated and contrary for that and Dog Days cleaves close to this truth again and again, delivering a story that is grimly realistic at times while retaining elements of those whimsical hopeful novels of which English authors are the unquestioned masters.

What makes Dog Days even more of a joy to read and which will have you wishing you could stay in Waller’s evocatively made world for as long as possible – 357 pages is pitch perfect long but still feels not long enough because who wants this sublimely wonderful take to end? – is the way in which Waller weaves together, with exquisite thoughtfulness and care, the dark and the light of life.

In many stories, these two elements feel discordantly at odds, as if only one can occupy the space of a person’s life at one person, but in Dog Days, it feels entirely natural, because it is, that happiness and sadness, hope and despair, can co-exist in the same agonisingly imperfect time and place. (This truthfulness also comes with a warning that you should not judge others because you often only see one of these strands or a small snippet of their life and cannot possibly know or understand the full scope and state of their life.)

Dog Days, for all its whimsical hopefulness and cheery optimism, is darkly grounded too, a salient and reassuring reminder that being in a place of brokenness, while entirely human place to be, is not the end of things but that where is takes you can surprise you and that there is a richness and a life-changing value in simply opening yourself to where the broken places might take you.

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