Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the right time and it’s exactly the book you want to read. Such was the case with Georgia Blain’s Between a Wolf and a Dog.
The story takes place predominantly over one rainy day. Ester is a single mother to twin girls and works as a family therapist.
“It’s rare that she hears about love in her consulting room. Most of her clients talk of anger, failure, boredom, depression, conflict: the flipside of love.”
Although Ester spends her days helping others find happiness, her own family relationships are in disarray. She’s estranged from her directionless sister, April, and also from her ex-husband, Lawrence, whose reckless decisions are catching up with him. Ester and April’s mother, Hilary, is desperate for her daughters to reconcile.
The delicacy and brilliance of this book is captured in the title, translated from the French phrase, ‘l’heure entre chien et loupe’. Literally, ‘the hour between dog and wolf’, it refers to twilight, the time when distinguishing between a dog and a wolf might be tricky. The title reveals the duality of Blain’s story – friend and foe; outward calm and inner turmoil; what to discard and what to keep; safety and danger; what we reveal and what we keep hidden.
Flashbacks to the past reveal the history of Ester, April, Hilary and Lawrence’s relationships and although there are a handful of key moments, there’s nothing in the plot that’s there to shock. It’s a quiet, careful novel, in which Blain ever-so-slowly increases the emotional load – it’s compelling and by the end, you’re completely in its grip.
Blain’s writing is fantastic – for story about emotions, it’s heartfelt without being sentimental (or depressing). The shift between characters is seamless and the inner voice of each is rich and lucid.
“It has been … two years since Lawrence sat in front of her and confessed. And despite being so tired of the taste of it, she has held his betrayal close.”
It’s a book that reveals the truths and lies we tell ourselves. The intersect between the stories Ester hears as a therapist – many terribly sad and depressing – and her own problems, very gently explores the extent of unhappiness and how it’s impossible to compare one person’s situation with another. Ester compares the intensity of her clients’ experiences with her own, thinking that they were often “blanching her own of any colour or substance”. She describes how she compartmentalises her feelings, presenting a facade of ‘calm curiosity’ –
“It was strange, this blank slate you presented to each client. You existed only for them. Nothing else happened in this room, before or after. They came, they went, and then the next one arrived. None would know how much sorrow and shame and grief and fear this room had seen, from small ordinary madness to great howling despair.”
It’s also a story that explores themes of forgiveness, when to let go and when to move forward. It’s done in a thoughtful, subtle and realistic way and culminates in an ending that is particularly poignant.
“…last night, when he had returned from the river, there had been no shimmer, just a momentary bravado, and then a sadness that had shocked her.”
4.5/5 Half a mark off for all the rainy bits. Other than that, perfect.
Mention must be made of the sad passing of Georgia Blain in December 2016, just months after the publication of this novel. A great loss.