Books

The Friend, Sigrid Nunez: The Rite of Spring, Gillian Moore

Jane Graham is touched by the story of a grief which sparks many questions but is best comforted by the love of a good dog

New Yorker Sigrid Nunez has accumulated an enthusiastic following through her seven novels, the latest of which, the National Book Award-winning The Friend, is finally being published in the UK. And thank goodness for that. At just over 200 pages, it may seem slight, but do not be fooled. In fact The Friend is quite extraordinary in its ability to send out sparks of intrigue, information and imagination in just a few sentences.

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The narrator of The Friend is a literature lecturer who begins the story in the throes of deep grief after the suicide of her beloved friend, a renowned novelist. After a visit to his widow she reluctantly inherits her old mentor’s orphaned dog, a lolloping Great Dane called Apollo. And, in a plot turn which won’t surprise anyone who was convinced they weren’t a dog person until they somehow landed a pet dog, she finds herself increasingly reliant on the company of the sweet-natured big hound.

Nunez evokes the mannerisms and habits of her Great Dane so potently that the reader quickly falls under the same spell as the narrator

No writer I’m aware of has ever satisfactorily explained how dogs burrow their way into the human heart and stay there forever, enduring totems of a unique and constant love. Nunez is as incapable of comprehending the process as the rest of us, but she is quite brilliant at describing a miraculous slow-grow connection which begins with anxious trepidation and transforms into a dogged mutual dependence. Those involuntary little chest implosions inexplicably induced by the most common canine act; a joyful leap, a hopeful gaze, a gently placed paw: Nunez evokes the mannerisms and habits of her Great Dane so potently that the reader quickly falls under the same spell as the narrator.

Along the way we are treated to Nunez’s (often very funny) musings on literature, memory-keeping, solitude, suicide, and sex. Her writing is so unpretentious and conversational that, no matter how lofty the subject, there’s a friendly pub-chat tone to her emotional insights and literary anecdotes. It’s a stretch to say it’s like chin-wagging down The Vic with Danny Dyer after his course on utilitarian philosophy, but it is probably as much fun (ie lots, naysayers).

It’s also very touching in its examination of the dog / human relationship; the ‘idyllic’ love, to quote Milan Kundera. The final chapter, which deals with the dreaded ‘inevitable’, is remarkable; after 200 pages of theoretical query and observation, the narrator gives way to reverie and poetry, with similar affect to those moments when Sebald or Tarkovsky eschew their intellectualism and throw their fragile hearts into the air. Suddenly it’s an eviscerating tear-jerker, the pain and sorrow all too human. And what better to remind us of our humanity than a dog?

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Gillian Moore’s The Rite of Spring is the latest in Apollo’s (the Head of Zeus imprint, not the Great Dane) Landmark Library Series, a collection of beautifully illustrated books focusing on the greatest achievements of mankind from the Stone Age onwards. No room for lightweights on this list then.

We might argue about the qualifying criteria, but if Moore, Director of Music at the Southbank Centre, doesn’t convince you of the epochal significance of Stravinsky’s outrageous fire-starter you must be damn hard to please. With an intoxicating tone which combines academic authority, rich, detailed description and pure thrill, she explains the history of the piece, the wild myths and characters which come with it, and the explosive impact of its first riotous performance in Paris, 1913. Rousing stuff.

The Friend, Sigurd Nunez (Virago, £8.99)

The Rite of Spring, Gillian Moore (Apollo, £18.99)

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