Firstly, I love this floppy-hardback format and now want all books to arrive like this; a book that's been a pleasure to pick up and what joy, no battle with cracking spines or fighting with self-closing pages.
Books like Even the Dogs fall into a category of their own and I think they might be quite rare. Books where the subject matter is so challenging and so excruciatingly painful to read that you need regular respite, yet somehow you don't want it to end; so much so that I set the book aside with twenty pages to go and looked at it for two days before I finally finished it. I wanted to savour every second of this reading experience because I think it's been a unique and special one.
The first thing to know about Even the Dogs is more about that challenging subject matter.
Between Christmas and New Year, Robert's body is discovered in his derelict and virtually uninhabitable flat and this is how the book opens.
'They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away.
The air is cold and vice-like, the sky a scouring steel-eyed blue, the trees bleached bone-white in the frosted light of the sun...'
Robert is an alcoholic and has been dead for some time so when the police discover his body it's not going to make for easy reading, but what strikes with immediate impact is the narrative voice.
Who is telling me all this?
It's clear these are friends of Robert's and though I expect other reviews may speculate, I have no plans to because if you read this I must let Jon McGregor slowly reveal it to you as he did to me, and every reader must then draw their own gradual and perhaps differing conclusions.
The story is told from a unique perspective with gaps and silences, sometimes abrupt endings to sentences when the voice wanders off track and leaves the reader to fill in the words, which I did...it's pure innovation and soon uncertainty melds into comfort with this style. I think I felt that Jon McGregor was trusting me as a reader, which in turn made me trust him as a writer because it was clear that subject matter like this needs a safe pair of hands.
Indeed, this might be a world you would prefer to know nothing of and a sense of place that you'd really rather not experience, because Robert's flat is disgustingly filthy, his life when revealed a mess. His home has been the meeting place for all the local drug addicts, alcoholics and vagrants, all those homeless people governments readily label marginalised and disenfranchised without perhaps really considering the how and why. So prepare yourself if you plan to read Even the Dogs because Jon McGregor takes the reader deep into the world and the mind of the drug user, the underbelly of society is going to be exposed as the story nips back and forth in time and it's inevitably grim.
Jon McGregor has chosen to write about a group from whom society more usually withholds its sympathies.
Health care is rationed enough as it is without forking out the £65,000 it costs (at least that's what it was about a year or so ago and the last time I had any face to face professional contact with this world) to put a drug using couple through rehab, when perhaps the general opinion might be that surely it's all their fault for ending up where they have.
I've worked with plenty over the years.
It actually takes real commitment to be a drug addict.
They are resourceful though mostly illegally unless on Methadone replacement and maintenance, surprisingly clear-thinking and organized about supply for all that we label them 'chaotic', and in my experience often very eager to please professionals and therefore very plausible. The danger is omnipresent and I've fallen into the trap many-a time; when your instinct is always to think well of someone you need your wits about you with drug users and much as you want to trust them, sadly you can't trust an addict, you often can't believe what they tell you.
It's a fine and difficult balance because if therapeutic relationships are built on trust where in heaven's name do you start and that innate unreliability was constantly in my mind as I read.
Who to believe?
How much I wanted to trust the voices but I constantly asked myself whether I could, and for reasons I won't divulge for more fear of spoiling, I did.
We often used to double up for home visits, not for safety of person and purse as much as safety of process, one to talk one to observe (and keep a stranglehold on the dog, there was always an eager dog that wanted to sit on your lap or 'love' your leg), because these are the cases that can end up in court, with children the subject of care proceedings or sadly, on several occasions, with parents found dead.
You have to be very sure of what you may be missing because good outcomes were sadly rare in my own experience.
Jon McGregor gets right inside the mind of a drug user with his narrative, which predominantly flows as stream of consciousness with jumbled, garbled interrupted thoughts, the confused and delayed responses you might expect from a drug-damaged mind...and still you wonder who's telling the story...who's watching Robert's corpse on its final journey through post mortem and cremation?
Think of every 'D' word you can, I made a list as I read and perhaps this gives you a clue, this book does not fit the happy reading remit of Tuesday, herein despair, desolation, decay, desperation, degradation, distress, delusions, denial, dishonesty, deceit and dreaming...all addicts dream of better times, better places and it's all in here.
Slowly Even the Dogs gathers a fierce unstuttering coherence as it moves towards moments of clarity, then the narrative becomes unstoppable, barely punctuated. At one point a most revealing section tracing the poppies from the fields of Afghanistan to the streets of London as heroin.
Jon McGregor ventures to the edge and over the abyss and I can only imagine where his research may have taken him.
Remember Emile Zola and Therese Raquin and those mortuary scenes?
I think Jon McGregor may have been there too and a lot of other places besides and I can only begin to imagine how harrowing and emotionally demanding it might all have been.The research feels painstakingly accurate but doesn't overburden the whole, it's important to get the right words and he does...script, harm minimisation, risk behaviours, rehab, Methadone, facilitate, assessment they're all there but in just the right context and quantity.
I actually think this is a really important book, not only for the content but for the sheer beauty and originality of the writing and I sincerely hope prize judges everywhere are looking at it very carefully indeed.
If they are in the least blinkered or squeamish we're in trouble, but if they are genuinely looking for literary books that reflect all aspects of society...not just the nice bits...or only the nasty bits from 400 years ago (much as I loved them) ...or the violence and poverty on the other side of the world because then that's not really our problem...or, heaven forfend, movie chimps as the joke inclusion, then this one has to be a serious contender.
Even the Dogs is a book that will inform, will challenge assumptions and perhaps redistribute rationed sympathies, to ignore it is to ignore a painful but fundamental failing and perhaps to understand that a little more clearly is a step nearer to ... well to I don't know what, because I'm not stupid enough to think the solutions are there for the sorting, but someone needed to tell the story of those who live and die in this underworld and tell it as it really is, and Jon McGregor most courageously and brilliantly has.