Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

I usually don’t like to read books that simply by their title suggest there will be tears but this text takes a well known subject and turns it into an original piece of literature. Based on the real story of Ivan Mishukov, the narrative follows little Romochka and his pack around Moscow as they learn to provide for their little family.

The 90’s in Russia are usually taken for granted as a difficult time for the newly displaced and fragmented nation and government. Reading this through the fresh eyes of a little boy, who knows nothing of politics or history and so doesn’t view his life in context of the structure that has been unraveled. It shows the Perestroika in the form of human experience rather than the isolating chronology of history and politics. Which makes it easier for other nationalities and generations, who know it from a distance, to understand it and come into proximity with what was happening – what, in a sense, is still happening as the country works towards recovering a structure to their society from the devastation of unraveling a whole system.

The difficulty for Hornung was not only to portray a society, with its own unique and often misunderstood culture, but also to write animal characters that remained animals. Quite often, in our struggle to understand a different species, we assign them human qualities which in all fact do not apply because they are strictly human attributes. Assigning human emotions to an animal, in a sense, robs them of their animal identity and just simply do not quite apply as we apply them to people because they are connected to human experience and concerns. And an animal possess their own unique qualities. So how do you write an animal that the reader can understand and connect with as a character without robbing it of its animalistic qualities? I don’t know. But Hornung seems to strike a balance between creating an animal character that one can connect with and at the same time that is recognizably and undoubtedly animalistic.

To do this she robs Romochka of his childish qualities but arguably, considering the context of Romochka’s existence they would not have survived for long. Besides, it’s quite common that child narrators adopt a mature voice in order to tell a story well. Take ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for example, we know Scout is a child but like Romochka, as narrators they must play the role of observer and to do so they need to pay attention and relay it to the reader in a non childish way so we understand what they’re talking about. Romochka is a complex character but incredibly fascinating to read. Again, Hornung strikes the balance between child narrator and his childish qualities. It’s not an old man in a little boy’s body, he is still a child without compromising the narrative.

Hornung writes simply because she is covering a complex subject and a unique experience. This book has won awards, and some have referred to it as a classic. Although I do not see how a text can be considered canonical in just 6 years since its publishing, I nonetheless understand the sentiment. This book, after I shut it for the last time, lingered with me for weeks. I couldn’t draw any conclusion and at the same time far too many to make any sense. The ending haunted me and now its simply one of those things I’ve accepted as having made so profound an impression that the book is still fresh in my mind.

Maybe not everyone feels the same, some of my friends and family gave up reading half way through (it baffles me how) and some, like me, were overwhelmed by the story and cherished it for its ability to draw you in. Each decides for themselves.

Find it on Goodreads!

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