I have often thought that one´s response to a particular book is often shaped by the books you have read immediately prior. Sometimes a brilliant book casts everything else into the shadows and dulls your appreciation for whatever comes after, but sometimes it works the other way too. Immediately before reading this book, I read a dialogue-heavy political novel and I’m still reading a very long survey history non-fiction book. There’s no ‘singing’ prose in either of them. But right from the first page of Georgia Blain’s book I just relaxed into her precise and confident prose, knowing that I was reading a writer who can really write.
Much of the action in the book takes place over one day – a dank, wet Sydney day with the rain pouring down almost without stopping. We learn in the early pages that 70-year old Hilary is very ill, but she is keeping this knowledge from her two adult daughters, April and Ester. The two sisters have been estranged for three years, after April and Ester’s husband Lawrence had a brief fling. There had always been an underlying tension between the two siblings. Ever since childhood, April has had a scant regard for possessions, and freely takes what she desires. However, ‘taking’ Ester’s husband is a far cry from the ‘borrowed’ clothes and pilfered jewellery from their childhood. Ester and Lawrence’s marriage breaks down, and the two parents are negotiating the shared care of their children.
The phrase ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog’ refers to that twilight time when the shape of things is blurred, and it is no longer clear whether an animal is a wolf – a threat- or a dog -potentially friendly. Likewise, all the characters in the novel are at a pivot of change. Ester, a counselor, has met a man who might be a possibility; Lawrence’s career reputation is about to come crashing down; April and Ester are both wearying under this long estrangement, and Hilary is facing big, life-and-death decisions.
The narrative focus swaps from one character to the other, while the book itself is divided into sections ‘Now’ and ‘Three Years Ago’. I didn’t find all parts equally compelling. Following Ester through her counselling consultations as she negotiates around other people’s pain seemed superfluous, and could easily have been omitted. April and Lawrence’s separate irresponsibility and obliviousness to consequences was repellent, but Blain captured their own self-absorption and recklessness well. One character who remained shadowy was Hilary’s husband and the girls’ father Maurie, a successful artist whose reputation continues to grow after his death from heart attack. His widow Hilary is curling into her own ball of pain, and the closing scenes were poignant as she meets separately with her daughters who are blithely unaware of what is about to come.
The most beautiful writing in this book is in her descriptions of that drumming, streaming rain which lowers like an oppressive cloud over the family. Particularly the two opening scenes, where Lawrence and Ester wake up in their separate houses to the sound of the rain on the roof brought me right into the room with them.
Georgie Blain’s own experience of the same cancer that Hilary faced is a tragedy of irony, but it would be wrong to read this book solely in terms of the author’s own illness. The characters were so real to me that I found myself wondering what happened next, even while reminding myself that it is fiction. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hold its own truth.. It is a beautifully written, domestic novel, carefully constructed and balanced.
My rating: 8.5
Sourced from: CAE as our February 2023 bookgroup read.