A Review of Louis de Bernieres’ Red Dog

The cute little red book has 15 sweet and poignant stories based on the real life of a well known dog whose bronze statue appears in Karratha, a Western Australia mining town. Aside from the evil wind which Red Dog passes, there is little to remind readers that this is the world of the monumentally talented author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, or The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

If another author had wriiten Red Dog, it probably would have received less critical attention, and better reviews. The cute little red book has 15 sweet and poignant stories based on the real life of a well known dog whose bronze statue appears in Karratha, a Western Australia mining town. Aside from the evil wind which Red Dog passes, there is little to remind readers that this is the world of the monumentally talented author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, or The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. The stories are reasonably well written, and if viewed as a children or young adult’s book, then they are actually quite good, with moments of pathos, suspense, and some reasonable descriptions of Western Australia’s natural beauty. In an interview in The Australian Age, de Bernieres even hinted that the book was originally intended as a children’s story: “I had always had it in mind to write a children’s book but I’d never thought of a decent story before. This story landed in my lap. I wrote it initially for 12 year olds, so I left out all the f—ings and bloodies.” Unfortunately the book wasn’t marketed this way, so readers expecting the linguistic fireworks, deep introspection, irony, and invention of Corelli will be severely disappointed. There is, strictly speaking, nothing wrong with Red Dog. The kelpie is a stubborn wanderer who lived between 1971 and 1979. Originally christened Tally, Red Dog becomes a “free dog” after he wanders off permanently from his original owners. He befriends a range of characters in the mining town, and the hard boiled miners take a shine to him, protecting him, bringing him to the vet on occasion, and mourning his demise. Red Dog’s independent spirit, his sense of adventure as he hitchhikes, rides the bus, and steals food from beach barbeques, makes him an endearing character, especially for dog lovers. Red Dog, also known occasionally as “Bluey”, a common nickname for redheads in this part of Australia, has a number of adventures during his short life, including befriending an equally independent red cat, searching the countryside vainly for his deceased friend John, and running some unpleasant Caravan park owners out of town.

Red Dog is also a forgettable book, with no great themes, little characterisation, with few insights and little linguistic power. There are some charming and old fashioned wood cut drawings done by artist Alan Baker, and while they make the attractively created book a better Christmas present, do nothing to enhance the stories, other than highlight the old fashioned nature of the tales. Apparently de Bernieres is working on an extensive, intense and lengthy novel titled Birds Without Wings which is about the widescale ethnic cleansing that sent Greek Moslems to Turkey and Turkish Christians to Greece after World War 1, so perhaps Red Dog was just a brief interlude – a little relaxing prose in between the intensity of the big novels. The main problem with the novel lies with de Bernieres’ superficial treatment of both Western Australia, and the characters. Compared with Winton’s superb novel Dirt Music, the Western Australia of Red Dog seems overtly quaint, but lacking in that deep sense of the land, while the characters seem odd, foreign, and simplistic, as if seen through the eyes of a, well, dog. There are moments which are moving, such as the Red Dog’s death at the end, and his desperation to find John, but it did seem that the overall aim was to keep these as simple vignettes, suitable for young adults, rather than adults looking for a literary fiction experience. For readers looking for something light and mildly amusing to read on a train, or while relaxing after a big turkey dinner, Red Dog is a reasonable book, and it is perfectly acceptable for teenagers. Seekers for a big literary experience along the lines of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin should look elsewhere. There is a “Glossery of Australianisms” at the back, for those unsure of what a Barbie, Akubra, Dingbat, Dunny, Drongo, or Middy is.

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