Books

Anna Funder
The Girl with the Dogs

Such is the prominence of Australian writer Anna Funder it’s easy to forget that, until now, she’s published only two books: both the nonfiction Stasiland and the novel All That I Am were best-selling award winners, and both revolve around her interests in Germany, totalitarianism and individuals’ responses to it. Funder tries something different in her slim new novella, The Girl with the Dogs.

The Chekhovian reference is intended. His “The Lady with the Dog” (sometimes a “little dog”, depending on the translation), published in 1899, is often listed among the best short stories ever written, and Funder’s version is an updated companion piece rather than a reimagination, though even this would terrify most writers. Funder is made of sterner stuff.

Tess is an editor with three children, settled in a long-term, boring marriage with epidemiologist Dan. Like Chekhov’s Anna Sergeyevna, she had been in love with an older man, Mitya, in her 20s in a seaside town and is now at an age when “people seemed so relieved to feel once more the overwhelming love they’d felt when young for their spouse, that this feeling in itself made them feel young again”. Tess is “…looking for something else, some feeling she had then that has been lost”. A business trip to Europe gives her a chance to find that feeling again.

Chekhov’s original ends with Dmitri and Anna facing “a long, long road before them”.

Funder provides Tess, Mitya and Dan with a less ambiguous denouement. She has never written better: every sentence is crisp and glowing, with a world of emotion floating just out of reach. Some of these wonderful lines are courtesy of the original (the magnificence of “…and her husband believed her, and did not believe her” could be no one but Chekhov), but others are Funder’s as far as I can tell. In The Girl with the Dogs, she is evocative and minimalist, unlike her first-person voices in All That I Am, which I found unconvincing, indistinguishable, and poorly controlled.

Towards the end of The Girl with the Dogs, there’s this line: “You know… sometimes you might just need someone else’s words.” It’s a concept relevant both inside the story and in the broader context of Funder’s work. Perhaps her fiction heavily references external sources because she’s a nonfiction writer at heart. Regardless, she’s made something new and meaningful here, and I prefer hers to Joyce Carol Oates’s 1972 version, “The Lady with the Pet Dog”.  LS

Penguin, 80pp, $9.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Anna Funder, The Girl with the Dogs". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS