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Old 5th Jun 2011, 23:26   #1
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Default Sonya Hartnett: Sleeping Dogs

Sonya Hartnett writes at the borderlines of YA fiction, striking out from her native Australia to win international literary awards (the Astrid Lindgren Award in 2008, amongst others), straddling the lines of subject matter and dark atmosphere that evoke as much of the Gothic south of Faulkner as of her familiar setting of the local bleak and brutal outback. Sleeping Dogs, written in 1995, is perhaps her most notorious work, with an ending that delivers horror and frustration and some deep thought about how human relationships can be forged as manacles that appear like daisy chains, and how interconnectedness delivers values and a context for living as well as a subtle array of negatives and positives. Family loyalty is put under acute examination and tested to breaking point.

The book reads as an early prototype for Hartnett’s Guardian Children’s Fiction prize-wining Thursday’s Child – the setting a grim, run-down farm on the fringes of a small town, where a sprawling dysfunctional family, the Willows, eke out a pretty miserable existence, collecting rent from caravans who park on their land, tending cattle and barely tame dogs and slaughtering sheep and chicken to keep food on the table. The text drips with heat and oppression and elliptical insight into very strange lives.

The tree above the kennels is limp and ratty: it has a disease that will kill it. The dogs live amongst a litter of bleached bones, dented bowls, matted hessian, blackened sheepskin. They sleep and eat and shake themselves, shedding hair and fogs of dust. They dig ditches and stretch out in the dirt…
The five children are stunted of love from their idle, alcoholic and abusive father Griffin and from their mentally retreated passive mother, but these are no mere youngsters. Edward is 25, his sister Michelle the pride and joy of her father’s eye, Oliver is 15 and a frustrated academic, his younger sister Speck a feisty 14 who hasn’t had the spark yet kicked out of her. In the middle sits the ‘other’ child, Jordan, 21, changeling in colouring and attitude, creative, artistic and dreamy. All are tethered to the land and their family allegiance and some have deeper ties still.

Hartnett does a relatively simple thing plot-wise by introducing a stranger who appears at the outset to bring some positive energy into a dark and stultifying situation. Bow Fox brings his caravan along to the Willow’s farm to paint outback landscapes but cannot let sleeping dogs lie when the nature of the family’s relationships are mistakenly revealed to him. There is, for me, a very strong connection to Wuthering Heights in this book and, as in that story, our sympathies as readers are engaged for the most unlikely subjects. The farm is as bitterly depressing and its inhabitants as broken as some of Emily Bronte’s characters; vicious dogs snarl and chase; Bow Fox the intruder – not quite as mild as Lockwood – disturbs the peace and changes the family’s nature and personality for good. The characters examine their motivations but can hardly break free from the ties that bind them, both in love and hate. There is violence on a disturbing scale, retribution that finds its mark on at least two victims and grotesque misunderstanding. In short, it’s gripping, haunting, mature and rather extraordinary.

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