‘The Dog Of The North’ by Elizabeth McKenzie

Penny Rush has problems. Freshly divorced from her mobile knife-sharpener husband, she has returned home to Santa Barbara to deal with her grandfather, who is being moved into a retirement home by his cruel second wife. Her grandmother, meanwhile, has been found in possession of a sinister sounding weapon called ‘the scintilltor’ and something even worse in her woodshed. Penny’s parents have been missing in the Australian outback for many years now, and so Penny must deal with this spiralling family crisis alone.

Enter The Dog of the North. The Dog of the North is a borrowed van, replete with yellow gingham curtains, wood panelling, a futon, a pinata, clunky brakes and difficult steering. It is also Penny’s getaway car from a failed marriage, a family in crisis and an uncertain future. This darkly, dryly comic novel follows Penny as she sets out in The Dog to find a way through the curveballs life has thrown at her and in doing so, find a way back to herself.

From the cover and the publisher’s summary, I assumed The Dog Of The North was going to be another take on the familiar theme of Redemption By Roadtrip. One of those books where a likeable woman has arrived, through a series of unfortunate events, at a point where the life she’d expected to live has imploded so she sets out on a lone quest to find a new place where she can belong and along the way, she encounters larger-than-life characters who help her discover her inner strength and some of whom become her found-family when she finally starts to build a life that will help her be her true self. Cue sunset and happy-ever-after music. It’s a good theme and I’d have been happy to see a few new twists on old tropes.

One line on the cover should have told me that my expectations might be a little off. The one that says Shortlisted For The Women’s Prize For Fiction. The Women’s Prize For Fiction normally goes to quite literary books. The 2022 winner was Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness. The 2021 winner was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. It’s not the kind of prize a Redemption By Roadtrip novel is likely to win unless it goes way off-piste.

By the way, the publisher seems to have gotten ahead of itself with that statement. The Dog Of The North is on the Women’s Prize For Fiction Longlist but the Shortlist won’t be announced until 28th April, more than a month from now.

Anyway, it turns out that The Dog Of The North was… well… odd. Cleverly, nicely, engagingly, sometimes humorously odd but always, and ultimately disturbingly, odd.

The oddness starts with the main character and is compounded by how she tells her story. Penny Rush is a woman in her thirties who has been so deeply damaged by her childhood and her marriage that she’s reached a point where she is unsure of her right to be anywhere. She struggles with the most humdrum human interactions. Her first instinct is to be as invisible as possible and, when that’s not possible, to apologise for her own existence. Penny is confused and she has difficulty being honest with herself about how she feels and what she wants. As Penny is the one telling the story, it shouldn’t be surprising that I was also confused as I read the story.

I was halfway through the book and still had no idea where the story was going. The narrative felt like a long fall down a rabbit hole. I could see that this ‘falling forward’ mirrored Penny’s mental state. She has difficulty having confidence in her own worth, bordering on uncertainty about her right to be anywhere. She is unmoored from her past life and coping with the chaos of her grandparents’ lives while trying to find a place and a person to be. Her grandmother is a domineering, aggressive, accomplished woman who lives partly in a fantasy world, suffers from paranoia and mood swings and has a life-long habit of using the people around her to get her own way. Her grandfather is in a failing marriage to a much younger woman and is starting to suffer from cognitive decline. Penny, who puts a lot of energy into avoiding confronting her own problems, somehow ends up taking responsibility for solving her grandparents’ problems. The result, of course, is chaos.

The publishers described this book as ‘darkly comic’. I think that means it will make you laugh but you’ll feel guilty about it afterwards.

This book didn’t make me laugh. Not once. I don’t think that’s what it was trying to do. This is a story about a woman who is so starved of affection and so unused to human connection that she becomes inappropriately emotionally attached to anyone who shows her kindness. The man who first shows her kindness also has issues. He’s divorced, off his depression meds, living out of his van and in danger of losing his law practice. This makes for some bizarre scenes but I didn’t find any of them funny.

I hadn’t realised it as I was reading but I’d become emotionally detached as I listened to Penny’s account of a series of increasingly bizarre mishaps. This was partly because she told her story in a way that made light of her anxiety and her problems with her self-worth so that this story felt like a comedy where the humour was falling flat. Then, in the final section of the book, I was given a flashback to Penny’s childhood that took me from detachment to anger in seconds. I was listening to a pompous, ludicrously over-confident paediatrician mangling a psychiatric assessment with ten-year-old Penny and suddenly I was truly angry. I wanted to strangle him for the damage he was doing.

So, now I was engaged and ready for the big finish. It didn’t happen. Perhaps I was only expecting it to happen because I still hadn’t let go of my Redemption By Roadtrip expectations and was looking for Penny’s route to her Happy-Ever-After. What actually happened was more subtle, probably more truthful but sadly much less satisfying. Penny didn’t have an epiphany. She didn’t solve all her problems in a single step by attaching herself to new people She didn’t suddenly become strong and fulfilled and self-confident. BUT she did start to like herself a little more and to find ways of saying what she wanted and what she didn’t want and to feel entitled to prioritise her own needs.

As I said, it’s an odd book. In this case, odd isn’t bad but it does make the reader work harder to understand what they’re reading.

I recommend the audiobook version of The Dog Of The North, narrated by Katherine Littrell. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

Elizabeth McKenzie, is an American writer and editor. 

She is the senior editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review and the managing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader.

She has published four novels: Stop That Girl (2005), MacGregor Tells The World (2007), The Portable Veblen (2016) longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for fiction, winner of the California Book Award, and finalist for the Baileys Prize and The Dog of The North (2023) longlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize For Fiction.

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