A dog's life
ANIMALS: CARLO GÉBLERreviews Ordinary Dogs: A Story of Two LivesBy Eileen Battersby Faber and Faber, 318pp. £14.99
EILEEN BATTERSBY is a reader. She’s also a journalist and reviewer, has won awards (that for arts journalist of the year four times) and, in 2009, published Second Readings: 52 – From Beckett to Black Beauty. That book, which comprised 52 pithy accounts of books she’d read early in life and then reread for her Second Reading column in this newspaper, came prefaced by her short memoir The Reader in the Hammock, which said much that was interesting about literature but precious little about her history, her childhood and her family.
Ordinary Dogs, her new book-length memoir, is also light on background detail. She grew up in California, she concedes, but the only family member she mentions is her father, now deceased, a man she describes as “volatile, irrational, a dreamer, [who] spent long periods away, travelling, only to reappear without warning”. As he is the only significant figure from her past that appears in her book, this portrait carries an incredible charge.
At some point Battersby snr came to Ireland to scout for an Irish stud farm; this resulted in his daughter moving to Ireland (I think: the details are scanty). Ordinary Dogsstarts after this move in the mid 1980s, when, university finished, Battersby has, for the first time in her life, her own house (in a raw Dublin suburb) and is trying to find love and make a living.
Neither is going swimmingly, and so, as one does, she gets a dog from the refuge, a mongrel, part German shepherd (maybe), part collie. She names him Bilbo. A stray dog from her neighbourhood with the ears of a beagle then insinuates himself into her and Bilbo’s life. She names the second dog Frodo.
Thereafter, the writer and “the guys”, as the dogs are known, live together as a family (and I mean as a family), have many extraordinary adventures (the strangest for me being the discovery of a dead woman at a bus stop in a snow storm in a Kentish village) and survive a number of social and medical calamities.
Then, after a decade, three become four: the writer has a daughter, and, despite the dire warnings from friends that the guys will resent the new addition to the family, Bilbo and Frodo confound expectations and prove to be as paternal as the writer is maternal.
For the writer it’s especially important that her daughter experiences the personality of these extraordinary animals (and they are extraordinary animals: story after story testifies to their virtues and flawless instincts, for me the most remarkable being Bilbo’s biting – they only time he ever does bite – a workman who is stealing from the author), and her accounts of her daughter and the guys are among the best things in the book.
And then, of course, predictably, inevitably, the story ends – and you know it’s coming, for the whole book is saturated with a sense of the fragility of life – with Bilbo and Frodo’s deaths, after 20 years of life, 27 days apart.
Ordinary Dogs, it can’t be stated strongly enough, is a memoir where the emphasis is on the animals: they are the story, and everything that happens in Battersby’s human life is folded into their narrative. They’re the sun and she is a planet orbiting them. It isn’t the first time this has been done, of course. JR Ackerley (best known for My Father and Myself) did the same in My Dog Tulip,his account of life with a German shepherd, his “ideal friend” in lonely middle age. Battersby acknowledges the influence of Ackerley’s book, but there’s a huge difference between hers and his, and (as already hinted) it’s the degree of disclosure.
Despite its canine focus, My Dog Tulipis packed with painful accounts of Ackerley’s thwarted relationships, and these give a reader a real sense of the characters of the people Ackerley was involved with. His book is filled with fully realised individuals.
In Ordinary Dogs, on the other hand, the human beings in the author’s life are shadows. The figures accorded the most words are Battersby’s boyfriends, but all she’s actually prepared to tell us about these men is that they disliked her obsessive reading and resented the guys.
On the other hand, Battersby can’t be faulted for her candour about her own character. She offers a pitiless self-portrait. She is, according to her account, credulous, reckless, gullible, naive, solipsistic, neurotic and lacking in common sense; she is also achingly lonely yet quite unequal to amorous entanglement, in consequence of which she ends – as all her friends tell her, and she doesn’t disagree – married to Bilbo and Frodo.
As with Marmite, readers will either like or not like Ordinary Dogs: none will be neutral, I think. I’m in the admirer’s camp. I’m a dog owner, so I identify with the author’s canine obsession. I also admire the storytelling and the pungent self-deprecation. But what I like most is the author’s pluck. Other than with her daughter, her most conspicuously successful relationships have been with two mongrel dogs – and, like Ackerley, she’s not ashamed to admit it.
Carlo Gébler is a writer and prison teacher. He is completing a memoir, Confessions of a Catastrophist,for Lagan Press