(New York: Catapult, 2017)
I am stuck. At least that is how I feel most days. Trapped in a life far removed from the one I once dreamed. On good days, I fantasize about fleeing, where I’d go and how I’d manage to get there. On bad days, I sulk and cry. I pray that anger and disappointment won’t completely consume me, or worse, shatter my family. To ground myself, I escape into books, into other people’s lives both fictional and real, searching for something more, something tangible to prevent my own world from unraveling. As for my family, we find ways to function, move forward, and not completely destroy each other. It may not sound like much, but in comparison to the Burroughs family it is.
Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, begins on New Year’s Eve 1990. The narrative commences’ with Ru’s beautifully written and engaging second person narrative. Ru is the younger daughter of a Vietnam vet, a man suffering from PTSD, who can find no release from the horror that gripped him for twelve months of his youth. Many times he has fled, run away from his family, only to return. But this time it looks like it is for real. His wife and eldest daughter, exhausted from years of chasing him, have finally let him go. But the damage, the dysfunction, and the anger he has caused linger in the household he has abandoned.
The burning desire to escape, to runaway from a life overflowing with disappointment, pervades this novel. Each member of the Burroughs family has found a different means of escape. Ru takes off on her bicycle and into her art, drawing pictures and trying to make sense of the world around her. Lani, Ru’s sister, chases men and drugs, enjoying long motorcycle rides and wishing they’d never end. Tired of her mother and the endless fighting, she too leaves. Though Ru is hurt by her father’s departure, her sister’s departure leaves a greater void, “her absence eclipsed his absence.”
Like Lot’s wife, their mother, Evelyn, continuously escapes into visions and memories of the past, prompting her sister to comment, “You’ll put a crick in your neck, my love, looking back like that.” There was time, early in her marriage, shortly after the girls were born, that she’d jump into her car and drive. Drive half as far as the gas tank would take her, leaving enough gas to get them home. It was never far enough, and though she fantasized about leaving, she never did. And now, the girls are grown and she continuously reminisces about how she once ran away from home to be with the man who war had destroyed, and who, haunted by savagery, would beat her until his vision cleared and he realized he was no longer in the Asian jungle. She loves her daughters, but years of tumult have made peace with Lani impossible, and though she longs for a truce, she “will find no way of teaching her, no way of getting her to listen.”
Through the narratives of the women it would be easy to criticize Jack for his neglect, for hightailing it away from all responsibility, but then Rowe plunges the reader into Jack’s mind. He didn’t choose war. It chose him: “Only won the lottery once, and that was it. Happy Birthday. Prize was a medical examination and a free trip on the Vung Tau Ferry.” One year of his life stuck in Viet Nam and then a lifetime trying to escape the nightmares. It’s not lack of love that drives him away, but a realization that his family deserves better: “A darkness there was no climbing out of. Fists sinking deep into mud walls. But then the dream ended and it was her body that was so soft. Tried to leave, get back to repat. Couldn’t hurt her from there. Didn’t she get it? What the distance was for.”
A Loving and Faithful Animal is a heart wrenching glimpse into the life of one Australian family told from the perspective of every member. Reading each chapter it is difficult not to empathize with the given narrator. In weaving together the individual stories, Rowe designs a rich and colorful tapestry. There are no bad guys, just misunderstandings, bad luck, and poor judgment that tears the family apart. The story calls to mind the imperfections of the reader’s own life, and prompts reflection on how best to move forward. Stunning and poetic, A Loving and Faithful Animal would be an asset to anyone’s library.
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Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It! When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking and reading with her young son.