In­trigu­ing por­trait of life

Our re­viewer ad­mires a cross be­tween a com­edy of man­ners and a who­dun­nit.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by ALEX CLARK

The Dogs of Lit­tle­field Au­thor: Suzanne Berne Publisher: Fig Tree, 288 pages

LIT­TLE­FIELD is a lovely place to live, es­pe­cially if you like be­ing part of a soc­cer car­pool or book group, or know­ing the names of your neigh­bours, or strolling down the road to get a cup of cof­fee in the Forge Cafe – a bit more of a hit-and-miss af­fair than the Star­bucks op­po­site, but with its own hand-cut dough­nuts and wicker bas­ket filled with plas­tic daisies.

In fact, the com­pact Mas­sachusetts town is, ac­cord­ing to a (fic­tional) list in the Wall Street Jour­nal, the sixth best place to live in Amer­ica, which is pre­cisely what has at­tracted the scru­tiny of so­ci­ol­o­gist Clarice Watkins. Dr Watkins, whose pre­vi­ous work on “the ef­fects of global desta­bil­i­sa­tion on ur­ban ma­tri­ar­chal struc­tures” based on field­work in in­ner-city Detroit and Mex­ico City has been much ad­mired, has de­cided her next study should be into the far more mys­te­ri­ous busi­ness of equi­lib­rium. What, in other words, do the con­tented find to talk about?

But Dr Watkins’ project is some­what scup­pered be­fore it be­gins, be­cause Lit­tle­field has come un­der what one res­i­dent, Ge­orge Wech­sler, calls “a do­mes­tic fear cam­paign”; he might be for­given the slight grandios­ity given that its first tar­get was his bull mas­tiff, Feld­man, whose poi­soned body, “al­most too big to be be­liev­able”, has just been found in mead­ows ad­ja­cent to a lo­cal park.

Un­lucky for Feld­man, but also for his dis­cov­erer, Mar­garet Down­ing, a woman so at­tuned to po­ten­tial catas­tro­phe that she of­ten sets off to buy milk with the words, “Well, wish me luck.” Mar­garet, who pro­vides the novel with its pri­mary point of view, is con­tend­ing not only with her nat­u­ral melan­choly but with her hus­band Bill’s sud­den de­tach­ment from their mar­riage. A canine corpse is not re­ally what she needs.

Dog deaths con­tinue, grotesque, men­ac­ing and un­ex­plained. Is the pooch-poisoner sim­ply a mis­taken do-gooder, try­ing to free the com­mu­nity from trou­ble­some coy­otes but catch­ing beloved pets in the cross­fire?

Is he or she en­raged by pro­pos­als for a new dog park, which con­tentiously seeks to for­malise dog-walk­ing prac­tices that have ex­isted with­out caus­ing com­mo­tion for years?

Or is there a more sin­is­ter threat afoot to Lit­tle­field’s dog-own­ers and their com­pan­ions – to Emily (Boris the old English sheep­dog), Naomi (Skit­tles the labradoo­dle), Sharon (Lucky the bas­set hound) et al?

The scene is set for a cross be­tween a com­edy of man­ners and a who­dun­nit, and there are el­e­ments of both in Berne’s tale of sub­ur­ban shenani­gans; as the au­thor of the Orange prize-win­ning A Crime In The Neigh­bour­hood, she has a track record for this kind of nu­anced, dark­ened but thor­oughly en­joy­able small-can­vas writ­ing.

There are ex­cel­lent set-pieces in­clud­ing a rau­cous town hall meet­ing (“Do dogs pay taxes?”) and a hor­ri­bly claus­tro­pho­bic and dis­as­trous Christ­mas din­ner, com­plete with er­satz mashed po­tato and a ham dec­o­rated with pineap­ple rings and maraschino cher­ries, “as if it were cov­ered in tiny archery tar­gets”.

There is gos­sip, much of it cen­tring on Wech­sler, who is a re­cently sep­a­rated nov­el­ist: “Last week Naomi had spot­ted him in Star­bucks with his arm around a blonde in bik­ing shorts and a white Spandex top with no bra.” There is even a se­duc­tive grad­u­ate stu­dent named Willa Cla­m­age (it rhymes with dam­age).

Much is also made of Lit­tle­field’s egre­giously wel­com­ing at­ti­tude to­wards the out­sider Dr Watkins, who is first de­scribed as “a small fat black woman in an orange tur­ban” and later as look­ing like a for­tune-teller who may even be a friend of the Oba­mas.

She is in­vited to a Cel­e­brate Your Her­itage Day and pre­vailed upon to bring some ex­am­ples of her favourite “tribal cui­sine”. Mean­while, Mar­garet du­ti­fully in­structs her teenage daugh­ter to use the phrase “per­son of colour”. “But who says that?” re­torts Ju­lia. “Who says: ‘Hey, guess what, to­day I met a per­son of colour’?”

Dr Watkins her­self is both fas­ci­nated and mildly re­pelled by Lit­tle­field; she is also prone to writ­ing sum­mary sketches that, even al­low­ing for aca­demic jar­gon, seem harshly re­duc­tive of her ob­jects of study. At the same time, de­spite know­ing her pro­fes­sion, the town’s res­i­dents con­tinue un­aware, and per­haps wil­fully so, that she may be look­ing in their di­rec­tion.

Would their lives ever seem wor­thy of ex­am­i­na­tion to them? Or would they sim­ply feel that they are hu­man be­ings try­ing to get by in an in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble world, where even a mag­a­zine list­ing doesn’t in­ure your bliss­ful sur­round­ings to di­vorce, disease, de­pres­sion?

The dogs of Lit­tle­field do, even­tu­ally, stop keel­ing over; the fraught apprehension and the ap­palling mys­tery lifts. Tem­po­rary in­hab­i­tants move on; peo­ple die; chil­dren grow up.

Mean­while, Berne has cre­ated an in­trigu­ing por­trait of the kind of lone­li­ness that can only ex­ist in a crowd, and given the lie to all those sur­veys that sug­gest a place or its com­mu­nity can be summed up by its house prices, crime sta­tis­tics and per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors. – Guardian News & Me­dia

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