Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book Review ~ The Hidden Life of Humans

And now for something completely different.

I'm in my fifth month of
John Mutford's Great Canadian Book Challenge. My own personal challenge has been to read and review 13 Canadian books about dogs over the course of a year. Erika Ritter's The Hidden Live of Humans is my most recent read, and clocks in as book #7 of my 13.

I was kicking myself when I realized that this book would qualify for the challenge. My friend Tracy has a book swap each spring, and wouldn't you know it, I passed up my chance to score this book for free at this year's swap. It was also recently for sale on chapters.indigo.com for one lousy buck. gah! Eh well, it was worth the $14.56 CAD I paid at amazon.ca. But, still, free or close-to-free would have been lovely.

Erika Ritter is a Canadian wordsmith extraordinaire. Hidden Life is her sole novel - a Canadian bestseller when it was published in 1997 - but she has also penned a few collections of essays, as well as nonfiction. She is also a playwright, public speaker, and well-known CBC commentator. She grew up in my home province (SK) but now resides in Ontario.

Okay, so, Hidden Life. The basic premise is that the main character - a single 40-something woman named Dana Jaeger - unwittingly ends up taking care of an ex-boyfriend's dog while the ex is cavorting around Finland with his ice-princess Finnish dentist girlfriend. Murphy - the dog - has strong opinions, and pieces of the book are told from Murphy's point of view. Before I realized that the book was published in 1997, I thought either Ritter ripped off Garth Stein's idea from The Art of Racing in the Rain, or this was one of those synchronicity thingamajiggies. Kudos to Ritter for being about a decade ahead of Stein.

Overall, I enjoyed the book; I read from start to finish in about a week, and my reading time is pretty fragmented, so a week is good. It's sort of chick lit with an edge. It has some dark bits, including Dana's ex-husband, who is dying of AIDS; a graphic account of an accident Dana endures; and some uncomfortable childhood memories Dana dredges up. The humour is a little dry, which is just fine. Some of the narrative devices are not my cup of tea, though. Dreams are one device that allow us to see things we wouldn't otherwise be able to see from the narrators' viewpoints. It was a little fantastical for me. Also, Murphy is really very smart - so smart that I'm skeptical, and that's saying a lot. Much is made about Murphy's inherent dog-ness - he humps the laundry bag, for example - but at the same time, he is incredibly philosophical. In Stein's Racing in the Rain, Enzo acquires his smarts through watching t.v. Murphy's smarts are not explained, and we are expected to believe he has his moments of deep thought interspersed with his laundry-bag exploits. I dunno if it works. Maybe it's just me. Maybe that's what Ritter was trying to say - dogs are dogs, but they also have moments of insight that would blow our socks off (all the better to get their grimy little paws on said socks!).

If I did star reviews, I would probably give this 3.5 out of 5. A good read, not too heavy, keeps the reader interested. That said, it didn't really speak to me, and I really doubt I will ever re-read it. I'm on the fence about whether to shelve it or give it away.


Anonymous said...

It is very interesting for me to read that post. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

John Mutford said...

Looks like you've been spammed!

Anyway, a lot of us weren't productive readers in December. Work and the holiday preparation doesn't leave a lot of reading time.

Too bad this book wasn't all you'd hoped it would be.

Speaking of dog stories, did you read the news about the dog rescuing a boy from a cougar recently?