Between a Wolf and a Dog
In Georgia Blain’s sixth novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog, Hilary Marcel is a widowed filmmaker, the mother of two girls and the grandmother of two girls. Her life is changing in a way that’s outside her control so she’s made a big decision about what happens next. Although her family doesn’t know it yet, she’s in the process of finishing her last film, which “asks questions of what to keep, what to discard, what clings despite all efforts to dispel it, and what slides away”. Over the course of Between a Wolf and a Dog, Hilary’s daughters, Ester and April, face this same question, as does her son-in-law, Ester’s estranged husband, Lawrence.
Blain’s characters are all artists of some description and they negotiate life by taking what comes – the small irritations and big griefs, the betrayals and insults – and remaking it into something useful and shiny. They feed from themselves in a way that’s at once self-indulgent and admirable.
Ester is in her 30s, a family therapist and hobby painter with small twin girls. She’s the sensible one in the family and tonight she has an actual date, and for the first time since her divorce she’s excited about the possibilities.
Ester is estranged from her sister, April, and from the girls’ father, Lawrence; it’s been “... two years since Lawrence sat in front of her and confessed. And despite being so tired of the taste of it, she has held his betrayal close.” Ester knew that in her marriage “a sadness had settled. It was dank and slow in its creep, damp and stale. He was morose at home, his boredom with work and the stillness of middle age seeping through both of their lives”. Yet the end, when it finally came, was a painful wrench.
Ester’s sister, April, was a famous singer in her early 20s but has never lived up to her potential. She’s adrift now, cut off from her sister, sleeping with men who are too young for her, missing her nieces and wondering what might have been. She
“has never really known loneliness until now; she has had small tastes of its dregs, like cold milky coffee curdled at the bottom of the cup, but she has always had faith in the fact that it would pass. Now, she is not so sure.”
Lawrence is a former musician and successful pollster who hates his job and wishes he was young again. He has determinedly blown up his family life. Now, he’s about to be exposed for falsifying approval ratings for a government he dislikes. In the early days, after the end of his marriage, he felt that “He’d gone so wrong; marriage, serious jobs, children – none of it was what he’d wanted.”
‘I’ve come back to myself,’ he declared. ‘This is who I am.’ He’d been aware of how ridiculous he sounded as soon as he uttered the words.
As Blain sets these four in motion over the course of one rainy Sydney day, we see her wonderful instinct for psychology and motivation. The family owns a country shack, built by Hilary’s late husband, Maurie, a famous artist. It’s only here, away from the city and its petty obsessions, that the heart of each of them can be revealed, and it’s where crucial elements in the story take place.
There are debts and regrets strung between Hilary, Ester, April and Lawrence but there are no villains in Blain’s world, only the foolish and the hopeless and the betrayed. In lesser hands, Lawrence’s would be a clichéd midlife crisis, but here Blain’s sensitivity lends him a tragic dignity. One of Ester’s counselling clients is 40 and has never had a sexual relationship. She “doesn’t know how to meet someone. Doesn’t know how to fall in love, to have sex, to be normal…”, and has a life of beautiful things in contrast to Ester’s messy, uncontrolled pain.
This type of balance is all through Between a Wolf and a Dog, but it’s not forced or contrived. In Blain’s world, “we have to stay ignorant of our blessings. Perhaps we can only carry our good fortune with us if we don’t know that we are doing it – otherwise we would be overwhelmed by anxiety at the possibility of its loss.”
By the time Blain reveals the reason behind the collapse of Ester and Lawrence’s marriage, the reader is already there. It’s as mundane and terrible as expected but Blain insists on making it also poetic. The prose throughout is lush and gorgeous; this is an elegant, intelligent and affecting novel from a writer at the height of her powers.
The experience of reading Between a Wolf and a Dog, though, is broader and deeper than these pages. I do not know Georgia Blain, but of course I do: from the childhood photographs of her with her brothers and her mother, Anne Deveson; from her life writing about the griefs of her own family; and from the columns she writes for this newspaper following her sudden diagnosis late last year with brain cancer. In the pages of Between a Wolf and a Dog, Hilary has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and hasn’t told her daughters.
When Blain writes of Hilary making plans in the wake of her illness “...loosening herself, trying to unpick the grip of life from her limbs, aware of how quickly time has been pushing her forward, shoving her now, relentless and sure, into this tiny space, the last moments, where she needs more strength than she has ever needed before”, any hope of critical disinterest vanishes.
“Like all of her works,” Blain writes, of Hilary’s final film, “it demands trust from the audience, that this seemingly random scatter of images will find a narrative order.” In this way, a work of art is similar to a life. This very good novel has become a staggeringly powerful declaration, an important story, and Blain has been generous to offer it to us. LS
Scribe, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Between a Wolf and a Dog, Georgia Blain". Subscribe here.