This is a prime example of don’t judge a book by it’s title or cover. One is a mouthful and another is a terrifying photo of a child. It hardly does this novel’s elegant prose and heartbreaking tale justice.
To the Dogs is an autobiography about the author’s childhood growing up in Africa. Her parents, “well-bred” Scottish descendants have lived in Africa their whole lives, moving from country to country, farming the land as ex-patriots. You’d be forgiven for wondering why they live there, constantly complaining about the heat, disease, poor soil, neighbors, animals, war. But you have to take a look at your own life. Do you not love where you’re from? Despite being able to list every one of it’s faults in excruciating detail? I know I can.
What immediately sets this book apart is the writing. It is nothing short of fantastic. There’s a childlike simplicity to it, since most of the stories are from a child’s perspective. It disguises the careful attention to detail, the seamless weaving of dialogue, flashbacks, and cultural context that pepper the pages. I found myself reading this book with no problem, but encountering dozens of words I had never heard before. African in nature, foreign to an American like me, but they are used so well that you instantly understand them.
The author looks back on her time fondly, but she doesn’t shy away from the difficult moments. Her parents’ clear alcoholism. Their extreme racism. The dichotomy of white people calling themselves African. Losses in the family, both human and animal. And their ability to drive drunk pretty much every day and not die. She is not afraid to get down in the dumps, exploring the familial dynamics, just as she explains the complicated African dynamics of ex-patriots and the locals.
It’s ugly, and it’s beautiful. I couldn’t put it down.
3 1/2 out of 4 stars.