Josephine Rowe Credit Jason Montano
A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL
By Josephine Rowe
165 pp. Catapult. Paper, $16.95.
I don’t want to start with Larkin because Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, “A Loving, Faithful Animal,” makes an ocean from his aphorism. Even if Larkin’s declaration remains stubbornly true – that old, known poem of how our mum and dad mess us up – Rowe’s book, a slim beauty, does so much to complicate this idea, in such a small space, that I found myself considering those rare things only books can do, feats outside the purview of film or fine art. Imagine Rowe taking a page of blank paper – call it linear time – and crumpling the page into a ball. Nineteen-sixty-seven is flush against 1990. This crumpling, collapsing of Chronos is what it means to have a memory that’s associative and wild, or a family that might be equally uncontrollable.
There is a presence and simultaneity of all personal histories in Rowe’s characters; even the memories most glancing, hated or secret make their ripples. A life remembered in swimsuits. An unwanted image of a drugged girl’s body being sexually abused. These geologic core samples extracted and examined horizontally allow all moments to be thrown together in one vessel: a family of four. Here’s Lani sneaking out at night to sell the drugs prescribed to her father, Jack, to help him forget the horrors of Vietnam, right next to her sister Ru and their mother, Evelyn, abandoned by both Jack and Lani, waiting beside a muddy reservoir for a brush fire to either pass them by or destroy all they’ve known.
Through six characters – three pairs of siblings, living in southeast Australia – Rowe tackles the ever-interesting idea of intergenerational trauma or “hereditary mange.” Jack returns home from the war in Vietnam emotionally damaged while his brother Les avoided that particular scar and that particular war by removing both of his own trigger fingers with a hatchet. Rowe’s use of siblings brings to mind experiments based on twins. What happens if one brother goes to war and one stays home? Or when one sister accepts the privilege of wealth, comforts the other sister has rejected? Rowe has constructed a glorious either/or equation that allows a reader to calculate outcomes: “The Corvette is gleaming, cicada-colored, its cream panels like wings and the soft top folded down. … This is Exhibit A in the Museum of Possible Futures, the life that might have rolled out smooth as a bolt of satin if she had just swung her slender legs up into that beautiful car and driven as fast as she could in the opposite direction.”
Rowe gives a reader much chicken-or-egg to consider. Is there a hierarchy or chronology in violence against the self, one’s own family, strangers? Where does violence begin? Where does it make its nest?
In a work of such well defined characters, each so carefully drawn as to breathe, and a work so full of stark emotional moments, one of the most harrowing scenes comes when Les contemplates how Evelyn, Jack’s wife, surrendered feeling: “But this is something else, this blue in the hallway. This has held clear and sharp, unwavering, years after the fact. And he believes it’s owed to this: When Jack’s fist slammed again and again into the hollow door and then through it, an inch from Evelyn’s face, she had not flinched. As in a side-alley show, some knife-throwing act, she had not flinched.”
This is a highly interior book, in which gorgeous, precise language encourages inner storms as the surface remains calm, and Rowe – introducing notions of airline flights, runaways, fast cars and motorcycles – asks whether we ever move fast enough to escape this deep damage.
Like the best of Breece D’J Pancake or W. G. Sebald, Rowe plants small moments from history as a soldier might bury land mines. What lies dormant beneath us? A massacre, a dead pet, a crime unchallenged. Rowe then waits for her characters to stumble home drunk or tired one night, tripping that memory wire, while we as readers watch the world explode.
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