Book review: The Dog Who Dared to Dream by Sun-Mi Hwang

(cover via Hachette Australia)

(cover via Hachette Australia)

 

Dreams are often seen as an ephemeral part of life.

Necessary yes, for without them where would we draw hope, or be motivated to push beyond ourselves and achieve great things, but hardly the root stock of existence, a necessity for a full and complete earthly experience.

But in Korean novelist’s Sun-Mi Hwang’s second book, The Dog Who Dared to Dream, dreams are an indispensable part of living, the sustenance that pulls one small dog named Scraggly onwards when a succession of bad events and a loving owner who blows hot and cold in his affections (though he mostly cares for her), leave her wondering if there is a point to any of this.

Within the backyard into which she is born, one of a large litter of puppies whose mother is exhausted and tired and spent from a lifetime of doing what dogs do and seeing precious little gain for it, she is the outlier, the one dog among many who seeks to move beyond the known to see what lurks outside the garden gate.

“‘Look at you! You’re the first one to open your eyes!’ The old man plucked a brown pup nestled in the middle and set down the blue-black puppy in its place.” (P. 7)

It exasperates her owner Grandpa Screecher – so named because he yells a lot at his dogs and they are nothing if not literal in their nomenclature – no end but it is also what endears her to him in the end.

He admires her indomitable spirit, her eagerness to explore the lanes, schools and fields beyond her home, and her bravery is squaring up against foes that by any measure she should have run from the instant she saw them.

It’s not that she’s foolhardy; rather her curious and lust for pushing boundaries emboldens her to the point where she is willing to take the kind of chances that neither her mother or siblings are willing to entertain.

To bring home how plucky and resilient Scraggly is, and yet how even her buoyant spirit is pushed beyond endurance on more than one occasion, Hwang essentially structures The Dog Who Dared to Dream as a series of interconnected vignettes, all separated by varying degrees of time, and many focusing on winter which Scraggly becomes convinced means her continual ill will.

 

 

Through these scenes, where we come to know not only Scraggly, her mother, siblings and eventually her puppies and the acerbic old cat who lives next door but also the family of Granpa Screecher who are devoted in a kind of distracted fashion, Hwang examines examines themes of hope, endurance, motherhood, friendship, loyalty, disappointment and the cruel hand of betrayal.

In other words, the business of living, both good and bad, and the way in which varying people, and animals of course, cope or more often than not fail to cope – a certain old cat and chicken called Sister-in-Law spring to mind in this regard – with the slings and arrows of misfortune of misfortune.

While the novel does end up embodying a certain remoteness of character, making it hard to care too much for certain individuals and animals, Scraggly and Granpa, joined by a bond that is tested more than once and that fails as much as it succeeds, are the emotional lifeblood, the cornerstones upon which Hwang’s near-poetic examination of the role hope and dreams play in keeping us alive and engaged with everything around us.

“Scraggly laid her head down. Sleep overcame her. She woke as Granpa Screecher was struggling to pick her up. He placed her in his cart. “I’ve never seen such a stubborn dog,’ he moaned. ‘It’s like when Chanu was younger and drove me crazy. You’re untamable. How can I not be worried? You don’t listen!'” (P. 90)

The charming part about Scraggly is that she’s not some picture-perfect Lassie or Flipper, whose adventures mat be strained at times but always end happily, and she endures as much misery as joy but she never gives up, never stops expecting that somewhere beyond the next lane lies the very thing she has been searching for.

Surprisingly, given its weighty existential musings, The Dog Who Dared to Dream is a slim, simply-expressed and times all too narratively-slight book that doesn’t belabour itself with wordy pontificating or great steaming piles of philosophical thinking.

Rather, it simply and sweetly and with varying mixes of happiness and misery, darkness and light, truthfully admits to the fact that life is never what we expect and that our attitude to the shifts in fortune are what defines us.

In that case, Scraggly is an intrepid survivor, a dog who in defiance of the odds and life events refuse to stand by and let fate mold and shape her.

She takes the vicissitudes of day to day existence in her stride and is at times cowed by them but like anyone who triumphs over rather than being defeated by life, she hangs doggedly (literally in this instance) to her dreams, the fuel of any life worth living and the only thing often left to us when, once again, we are left staring at the abyss.

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