Entertainment Books

Saturday 20 September 2014

Review: Memoir: Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby

Faber & Faber,€15.99

Published 18/12/2011 | 06:00

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Given that she is, according to John Banville, "the finest fiction critic we have", one might have expected that Eileen Battersby's first full-length book would be a high-minded literary novel. Instead it's non-fiction. Not only that, it's the story of her two dogs -- which makes it the perfect Christmas present for any dog lover.

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It begins over 20 years ago in a cottage on the outskirts of Dublin. Battersby is a young PhD student from America who has moved here and reads books, digs gardens and sands floors for a living; she is also a dedicated runner, is in a not very fulfilling relationship with a boyfriend (unnamed), and is in search of a dog.

First she finds Bilbo, a tiny pup in a horrible pound. Next Frodo, "a squat character who should really have been wearing a bowler hat", finds her and just moves in. And so, her 20-year long adventure with "the guys" -- that is the subject of this book -- begins.

The pace is hectic. Bilbo almost dies of distemper. A crazy lady with a pack of dogs stalks the village green accusing Battersby of "mollycoddling" him. An abused dog from up the road is found dead in a ditch. An old lab leads her to the back of a shop where she discovers a bitch and six pups who are about to be sent to the pound. Frodo arrives, and, politely, refuses to leave. It's all happening. How is she to cope?

Not that "the guys" -- Bilbo and Frodo -- are ever a problem. Love is given unconditionally, and returned tenfold. Complicated training routines are not seen as helpful. "Orders weren't needed, we just fell into step."

Battersby's acute observation illuminates her text. And the (extra)ordinary dogs. She never doubts their intelligence, instinct, feelings; under her intense and loving gaze their characters grow and shine.

The genius of Ordinary Dogs is the author's attention. While many dog owners have their pets as an adjunct to their busy lives, here the dogs are central. Although this is also a sort of memoir of a 20-year period in her life, Battersby remains in the background.

Is it really possible to write a 336-page book in which two dogs are the central characters? It might seem mad (even barking mad?) but Battersby manages it because her life is so emotionally bound up with theirs. We do learn something about her life along the way but the main focus all the time is on the dogs.

Her love for "the guys" is unconditional. Love for human guys is more of a problem. In the eyes of her boyfriends she reads too much, doesn't socialise and spends far too much time with the canines.

At one point in the book she goes to live in England for a while and "the guys" go too. She makes up pedigrees for them to baffle the dog snobs in Hyde Park. She travels with them on the Underground. They travel together to places where her literary heroes come alive -- Conrad, Wolfe, Dickens.

Eventually, tired out by city life and its constrictions, and with the offer of a job in Dublin, the three companions come back to Ireland. And back in Ireland, she gets pregnant. "The guys", now elderly gentlemen, are protective. They "gaze at the baby, whimpering softly". Her daughter learns to walk at five months, leaning on a besotted Bilbo. "He would sit as she read him stories; when she sang he sang too".

Towards the back of the book, the two stalwarts begin to suffer the problems that come with old age; finally, tragically, comes the end. On Bilbo's 20th anniversary, walking up the stairs, he stops and gives the paw. For the first time ever. An hour later, lying across his mistress's lap, he is gone. Less than a month later, his lifetime buddy Frodo also dies.

"I cried and sobbed and begged him not to leave me and I looked into his eyes until the life was gone", she writes. "Sunlight streamed into the room, the sky had brightened and the rain had finally stopped. Only now it didn't matter".

This is one of the best love stories you'll read this year.

Rosita Sweetman

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