In early February 2017, I launched Rebekah Clarkson’s novel Barking Dogs (Affirm Press). This is a reasonably close approxmiation (I’m pretty sure) of what I said:
In these dire — but hopefully hopeful — days we suddenly find ourselves living through, I doubt I’m the only person who is filtering virtually every event, action and thought through the reality, and the reality show, that is Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, President of Australia (like it or not), and leader of the free world. In the last couple of weeks readers have been running in droves to certain sorts of fiction: to George Orwell’s 1984, to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and more. Maybe these readers are seeking ways to understand the inexplicable. Or maybe they are retreating into fantasy worlds to, as Billy Joel might say, ‘forget about life for a while’. Maybe they’re not reading these books at all: maybe there’s comfort enough in just buying them and setting them on prominent display. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.
Whatever the reasons, Orwell, Atwood et al. are selling by the truckload. What has that got to do with Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking Dogs, a terrific new novel in stories about deceptively everyday moments and featuring an ensemble of characters — families, couples, singles, youth, kids — living ordinary lives in Mount Barker? A good deal, I suggest, because the best fiction not only entertains us, important thought that is, but also challenges us to understand ourselves, including our own — and our community’s own — foibles and failings. Barking Dogs sits firmly in that tradition: this is a book to turn to in 2017, just as much as, say, a dystopian vision of the near future that was published in 1949. We need today’s voices as well as yesterday’s voices, however infuential. And Barking Dogs is a book that focuses on big questions — including death and loss, ageing, gender politics and more — but that also finds meaning in backyard blitzes and in building off the plan.
The unifying glue for these stories is the town of Mount Barker, just up the freeway from Adelaide: ‘Mount Barker is a very different town from when Edna and Brian’s chidlren were young and they’d come through here as a family, in the truck. It was like a little country town back then, even with the milk factory and the tannery, though they’re long closed. These days Edna thinks of it as a maddening jigsaw puzzle of shops and schools and houses. Every new shop seems to want to sell her a pizza. An all the silly estates with their big, God-awful houses and man-made lakes and ostentatious entrance gates.’
It’s the fine detail in Barking Dogs that resonates, often delivered in a sentence or a phrase: ‘you could reach over the fence and open your neighbour’s toilet window’; or, ‘Forty-one years ago his grandfather had said, disappointment undisguised, that Malcolm was “not really a man’s man”’; or, ‘I watch my three items slide along the conveyer belt. Milk, white bread, miniature muffins’.
In the pages of Barking Dogs, Mount Barker the place comes to life like a living organism: its spirit, its contradictions, its growth. But the real force of Barking Dogs is the rich cast of human characters, and the small and big challenges they confront or avoid. There is an elderly widow called Edna, who is irritated by her daughter and the strange and superficial modernised world she chooses to lives in. When Edna gets a rare chance to look after her small grandkids, things don’t go quite to plan: the issue is minor, but the effect is devastating. Then there’s a 12-year-old girl called Janis who is in possession of a terrible letter written to her friend, Maddie B (‘not Maggie G’) by a boy. The portrait of Janis — not least, the fierceness of her emotions — is startlingly authentic. But also, ‘She is named after Janis Joplin, which is totally embarrassing’. And then there’s Graham, a small business owner — his new shop, Winners, sells trophies and medals. Graham sits, pained and distracted, through a meeting with his son and the school headmaster: ‘He’d just seen the school’s pamphlet on redemptive justice; this was going to take a while’. Graham, it seems, is out of sync with the world around him: how to make his business work, how to engage with others, how to parent, how to be a partner to Jenny, how to network, how to keep track of his Bluetooth. But he’s trying, in his own way, at least some of the time.
I could go on introducing characters, but better that you get to know these people yourself. Personally, I found the experience of reading Barking Dogs like looking at my reflection in the mirror, except with every pore and every flaw magnified. I nodded a lot while reading: a lot. I gasped: the shifts and revelations, the emphatic but open resolutions, are genuinely surprising. I laughed, very often because I experienced a discomforting jolt of recognition. And, not infrequently, I winced at the decisions some characters made, the views they held, the priorities they clung to, as if they were drowning without really even noticing that they were wet.
That’s a fine skill, the ability to make readers wince while also making them want to keep reading. Barking Dogs succeeds because Rebekah Clarkson brings such generosity of spirit, such compassion, such emotional depth, such candour to her storytelling. She’s not dumping on these people, she’s not using them for sport — even when they’re petty or self-absorbed or nasty or pathetic or apathetic. She’s not setting them up to fail or to look stupid for the benefit of her plot. And yet her gaze is unblinking.
In the end, Barking Dogs is a portrait of community: of a particular community, Mount Barker, and of the idea and ideal of community. In this novel of stories, endings always seem provisional. Although this is Rebekah Clarkson’s first book of fiction, the years of slog and persistence in honing her short story craft — of harnessing her particular way of sharing her particular vision — are on full display. Today we are celebrating excellence, but I invite you to take a moment to recognise how much much slog, how much sacrifice, has gone into the making of this object. Congratulations to Affirm Press, too, for choosing to publish Barking Dogs, for seeing the value in stories about the local, the suburban, the small. I also want to recognise Kate Goldsworthy, who edited Barking Dogs.
One of the books I’ve turned to this in the early days of the Trump presidency is English writer and illustrator Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel, When the Wind Blows. I first read it in the 1980s, which is the last time I was terrified about nuclear weapons. It follows the story of an elderly suburban couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, living in a cottage before and after a nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. Even as radiation sickness takes hold of them, they try to maintain their routines … and their innocence. The local and the global come together in the sharpest possible relief. In a different but complementary way, Barking Dogs, captures something very pertinent about Australia’s approach to the global, not least by addressing the insularity of our version of ‘local’. Barking Dog’s small themes are also big themes, and the thoughts and sitautions that fill the character’s heads — from the struggle to conceive a child to the struggle to face death, and everything in between — are stacked with unforced meaning.
February 2017, Adelaide