In her debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, Josephine Rowe constructs some of the most stunning sentences I’ve ever read. On every page you can feel the work that has gone in to choosing each word, the time spent considering cadence, and the meticulousness with which she must have gone about her editing. While this is only a 160 page novel, it must have taken an age to perfect. Any wannabe writer would learn a lot by just spending some time with this novel in their hand, copying out the paragraphs and getting a feel for how each sentence melds into the next one. So huge props to Josephine Rowe – she is an exceptional writer.
Many, many readers will find that to be enough. As a masterclass in syntax this would probably be the book of the year. But what about plot and intrigue? Does this story of an Australian family recovering from the loss of a much loved pet do enough to keep an average reader interested?
The novel breaks down into six chapters, each from the perspective of a different family member. Through those members we learn of different traumas, abuses, and experiences that have shaped this family and created a future that seems inevitable. We learn of war, of runaways, of alcoholism and illness. We learn of people trying to hold themselves together in impossible circumstances. Sitting on top of all of this is a mystery about a large cat let loose in the area, potentially responsible for the death of the family dog at the start of the story.
Writing this review, I feel that the combination of those stunning sentences and all of those different elements of family drama should really have been enough to grab me. But they didn’t. There is something about the construction of the narrative that actually made this very short book feel like a bit of a slog. Giving us the story from so many different perspectives eventually meant that I never really got particularly invested in any of it; just as I was getting to know a character they would be taken away, and something I already thought I knew would be explained through the lens of someone else. It was as if a lot of interesting ideas existed, but rather than getting to the heart of them we were skirting around the surface – dazzled by the sentences, but bored by the story they told.
Any cop? This book will probably split opinions. There will be a set of people who are happy to indulge in a masterfully constructed set of words, marvelling at how even the most simple of sentences feels like honey in your ears. And then there will be people who love a page-turner – there is nothing for them here. As someone who sits in the middle of these two audiences, I felt there was a lot to admire in A Loving, Faithful Animal but at the same time I felt relieved when I finally finished it.