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The Lives of the Monster Dogs

The Lives of the Monster Dogs, Kirsten Bakis (UK paperback cover)

The Lives of the Monster dogs should have been an exceptional novel. It has an intriguing premise and all the elements required for a gripping plot – dastardly scientists, loyal and dependable dogs and of course a crusading, innocent journalist to come to the rescue.

It is a retrospective account of the dying days of a race of dogs, the result of over 100 years of experimentation, genetic manipulation and physical alteration. Fitted with artificial hands and mechanic voice boxes, these dogs were designed to the perfect foot soldiers – tough, intelligence, loyal and deadly – but by the time their race has been perfected the ghoulish man who first conceived of them is long dead and with him has gone any sense of their purpose or any concept of whom they were intended to fight. Frustrated, the monster dogs rise up against the community in which they were bred, massacring their human masters and, after years of wondering around the North American continent, descend on an unsuspecting New York with all the grace and elegance of 19th century Prussian High Society – and fabulous wealth to boot.

Having already been asked to accept that a village in Canada could exist for over a hundred years unnoticed by anyone else and that a troupe of 150 or so man-sized speaking dogs dressed in Victorian costume could, in the early 21st century, roam through Canada and New England for eight years without comment, the reader is now asked to believe that the monster dogs would be accepted by New Yorkers with little more interest or comment than that which would be generated by the arrival of a Hollywood B-star. This is, quite frankly, too much. The author’s argument that “hey, all New Yorkers are immigrants anyway and therefore understand and accept diversity” just isn’t convincing. And this is the real flaw in the novel: while its language and scenario are rooted in the realism of today, its central premise is incredible and the reader is given no assistance to suspend disbelief.

This doesn’t undermine the work entirely. It has a lot of good points. It is a fun and easy read, always thought-provoking and at times variously grotesque and moving. The drawing of the characters of the dogs is masterly, in particular those of Lydia, a tender and intelligent friend of peace, and Ludwig who alone seems to struggle to accept his differences. Yet ultimately, The Lives of the Monster Dogs fails to delivery on the promise of its premise, in part because of its incredible nature and in part because it, tantalisingly, fails to exploit fully the psychological issues it raises. One is left feeling that the author has squandered an opportunity to write something of real merit and lasting significance.

The Lives of the Monster Dogs was first published in 1997 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It was named one of the Best Books of the year by Village Voice and a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and won the Bram Stoker Award for the best first novel.

Read and reviewed 2006

© Jessica Mulley, 2006, 2014