Haunted by History

(2001 Snowbound, All Rights Reser)
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By Dara Horn,
whose most recent novel is "The World to Come"
Tuesday, July 8, 2008


By Michelle de Kretser

Little, Brown. 326 pp. $24.99

Lucky readers will discover the trickery of Michelle de Kretser's "The Lost Dog" only upon finishing it, at which point the author reveals her astonishing sleight of hand. Ostensibly, the novel is about Indian Australian professor Tom Loxley, who loses his dog in the Australian bush while trying to finish writing a book about Henry James at the country house of Tom's artist friend Nelly Zhang. But "The Lost Dog" is really about Tom's search for knowledge (in every sense) of Nelly and about the thin veneer of modern civilization.

For much of the book, the plot seems inert, an excuse (as plot too often is) for the narrator to expound upon everyday life. But halfway through, de Kretser begins to spin an uncannily compelling mystery. At the end, it suddenly becomes clear that every seemingly gratuitous observation in the book was leading us toward a very particular conclusion not only about these characters but also about how our lives are defined by the cruelties and kindnesses of those who precede us.

Tom stumbles into Nelly's life when he sees one of her landscapes in a gallery and -- though he would never use the phrase -- falls in love. Nelly's art focuses on the ephemeral, uncovering both beauty and violence in the detritus of modern life (old advertisements, outmoded technology, old photos). What Tom finds liberating about Nelly is how liberated she seems from the influence of others, especially since he is struggling with his rootlessness as an Indian in Australia, a feeling complicated by his having to care for his elderly mother. But as Tom immerses himself in Nelly's artistic circle, he realizes how little he knows her, a fact made dramatically clear when he discovers her past as the wife of a disgraced stockbroker whose disappearance in the bush 20 years ago remains an unsolved mystery.

From there, Tom's (and the reader's) interest in Nelly acquires more urgency, and what seemed like mere lyrical observations become haunting clues. The ambiguity of these clues is a homage to Henry James's unresolved ghost stories. De Kretser intriguingly suggests that ghosts are an effect of the human tendency to suppress the past. Her characters never quite achieve the vividness of James's, but her daring willingness to let suspense accrue without promising resolution is a worthy echo of James's brilliance.

While the plot is subtle, the book's musings on modernity are anything but. Nearly every page offers observations on how contemporary Western life attempts to efface the past: faddish dress, gentrified neighborhoods, the disposability of old technology. Many of these images alone are worth the read: "The history of machines was written in the alignment of muscles," Tom notes upon seeing a woman tell someone to call her by twirling a finger in the air, mimicking a rotary phone, "a ghost inhabiting a gesture." He's just as astute on the unavoidability of history: "Living in Australia was like being a student at a party that went on and on; he didn't want it to end but couldn't suppress the knowledge that exams were approaching."

These observations, wonderful in isolation, can overwhelm the story; on occasion they seem to substitute for character. And too many such musings, like a gratuitous 9/11 reference, feel smug or condescending: It is always Tom, the Indian import, who wisely notices the primal undertow invisible to the book's crass, materialistic Australians. The book's Western characters, particularly a vaguely Jewish art dealer whose portrayal approaches caricature, initially seem like weaknesses in the novel's otherwise spot-on impressions of modern life.

But at the end of the novel, we suddenly discover that these mistakes are Tom's, that his insights about Nelly and her circle may be spectacularly wrong. A potentially alarming solution to the book's central mystery raises the question of whether discovering a person's venal or even violent past ought to change our attitude toward that person in the present. For an Australian novel, this question acquires national dimensions: "Buried deep in Australian memories was the knowledge that strangers had once sailed to these shores and destroyed what they found."

If the book too often forgets that a brutal past is not exclusive to the West, it nonetheless succeeds in illuminating the difference between how history is imagined vs. how it was lived, and whether we might prefer that the difference remain inaccessible, lost in the underbrush.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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