Mourning and loss

<strong>The Lost Dog</strong>

Michelle de Kretser

<em>Chatto & Windus, 304pp, £16.99</em>

Stuck to the lamp posts of urban streets, their small narratives of bereavement blurred by sun and rain, their fuzzy snapshots fading like hope, the posters appealing for lost cats and dogs, dearly loved, greatly missed, answers to Tiddles, reward offered for safe return, are a commonplace of city life. Michelle de Kretser has taken this most haunting of everyday tragedies as the starting point of her third novel, The Lost Dog, and allowed the search to lead her in dark and eerie directions.

The owner of the lost dog is Tom Loxley, whose solid Anglo-Saxon name belies a family history of displacement and wandering. The Second World War took his late father, Arthur Loxley, from Coventry to India and when peace came he chose to remain, ending up in Man galore, where he married a beautiful Eurasian, Iris de Souza, and fathered a son, Tom, before emigrating to Australia. Once there, he was swiftly run over by a tram, leaving his widow and son to depend on the grim charity of his sister Audrey and her husband.

Tom, as the book opens, is an academic in the textual studies department of a university in southern Australia, divorced and without attachments, other than his dog and his now elderly mother, who continues to subsist on the uncertain goodwill of her sister-in-law. In need of solitude in which to finish his book on Henry James, Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny, Tom rents a primitive cottage deep in the bush in which to enjoy the "Benedictine luxuries" of light, air, space, silence. It is from here that the dog goes missing. Something moves in the undergrowth; the dog's instinct to chase is stronger than Tom's grasp. Trailing the 20ft rope leash with which Tom allows him a measure of freedom, the dog vanishes and is seen no more.

There follows an unravelling of every aspect of Tom's life. At first he is tormented by the cruel antics of his mind, which declines to acknowledge the reality of his loss and turns instead to magical thinking, rerunning the scene with alternative, happier endings. Later, as hope of the dog's return dwindles, he begins to search, quartering the bush with the help of the woman who owns the cottage - a mysterious artist called Nelly Zhang.

Tom has known Nelly for seven months before his dog goes missing. His fascination with her takes shifting forms: part erotic obsession, part aesthetic curiosity, engaged both by the work that she produces and by the artefact she makes of herself and her surroundings, part sense that there are layers of hidden narrative to Nelly, mysteries that shift and recede, never quite visible but infinitely troubling. Over the eight days it takes the search to reach a conclusion - days of high anxiety, precipitous shifts of mood from hope to despair, with the exhausted exaltation that comes from being poised for a long time in a state of painful irresolution - the enlaced narratives of Tom's life unfurl.

Ranging between the present and events of the past, whose convergence has led her protagonist to his crisis, de Kretser pursues ideas of exile, loss, disappointment, mortality; the nature of happiness and also of evil; the relation between humanity and beastliness; the significance of objects, both present and remembered; the means by which we conjure and protect identity; the shared characteristics of words and shit; ideas of duty, responsibility and attachment - and much more.

All this she accomplishes not abstractly, but by a fusion of minutely observed detail and emotional nuance with three interlaced plotlines - the search for the dog, the humiliating physical decline of Tom's mother, and the ominous secrets of Nelly's past - as fiercely compelling as any whodunnit. Reading The Lost Dog, one is torn between contradictory urges - to race ahead, in order to find out what happens, and to linger in admiration of de Kretser's ravishing style. The Lost Dog, de Kretser writes in an afterword, "draws directly and obliquely on works by Henry James", and so it does. Her voice, her remarkable imagination and the technical mastery with which she deploys it, however, are all her own.