Book review: Red Dog – Louis de Bernières

Book review: Red Dog – Louis de BernièresI picked up Red Dog after reading the opening few pages of Louis de Bernières’ primo novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which a friend had brought into work. Feeling I’d earned some merit in resisting the urge to buy another book, I instead picked up a de Bernières book already in my possession – Red Dog. (Admittedly I do have two copies of Red Dog since a) my willpower is at best flimsy and b) I’m a fool for a pretty cover.) It soon became apparent that the two novels are very, very different.

Red Dog is contained by virtue of being based on a true story, which limits de Bernières’ poetic license. The book follows the adventures of Western Australia’s dog of legend: Tally Ho, the Pilbara Wanderer – ‘Red Dog’.

‘In early 1998 I went to Perth in Western Australia in order to attend the literature festival, and part of the arrangement was that I should go to Karratha to do their first ever literary dinner. Karratha is a mining town a long way further north. The landscape is extraordinary, being composed of vast heaps of dark red earth and rock poking out of the never-ending bush. I imagine that Mars must have a similar feel to it.

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‘I went exploring and discovered the bronze statue to Red Dog outside the town of Dampier. I felt straight away that I had to find out more about this splendid dog. A few months later I returned to Western Australia and spent two glorious weeks driving around collecting Red Dog stories and visiting the places that he knew, writing up the text as I went along. I hope my cat never finds out that I have written a story to celebrate the life of a dog.’

– Louis de Bernières

A pioneering and undomesticated (indeed, undomesticatable) red cloud kelpie, Red Dog spends his years travelling around Western Australia, befriending countless humans (and one particularly stoic cat) and generally acting his own master. Buses reserve a special seat for him; people regularly stop to give him a lift in their cars, or let him stay however long he pleases in their homes. There are, of course, those who aren’t quite so keen on Red Dog – but his friends far outnumber his foes.

The Pilbara Wanderer

These are simple but often heartwarming tales about a dog that befriended and united a far-flung community of working people. It’s notable that most of Red Dog’s friends are part of Pilbara’s mining community, sharing a deep camaraderie and not much wealth. And you can see why people loved him. Red Dog represented the defiant, independent, self-sufficient and regularly obstinate enterprising mortal spirit that cannot be tied down, even if one works nine-to-five at a mediocre, laborious job, even if one is a homeless city-dwelling mongrel. For the folk that met him, the Pilbara Wanderer was freedom and independence made manifest.

The writing is clean and enjoyable, the chapters short, the characters easy. The whole book is slim enough to enjoy in one seating. The edition I read (Secker & Warburg 2001, ISBN 10: 0436256177) also contains beautiful print illustrations by Alan Baker and wonderfully neat typography, both of which added a distinct pleasure to it.
This is more a book for dog lovers than those with lofty literary aspirations. It’s a pleasant read for an easy, feel-good evening, but not one you’re likely to revisit. Get a copy with gorgeous illustrations and devour in one sitting.

Book review: Red Dog – Louis de Bernières

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