De Bernières’s first book since his immensely popular fourth novel, Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), is a slender collection of 15 brief interrelated tales about a legendary mutt (1971–79) who became the beloved honorary “mate” of laborers in the salt- and iron-works of northwestern coastal Australia.
Variously named “Tally,” “Red Dog,” and “Bluey,” he’s a “Red Cloud kelpie, a fine old Australian breed of sheepdog” renowned for his restlessness, voracious appetite and libido, and quite remarkable flatulence. De Bernières recounts a series of only mildly interesting adventures in which Red Dog roams the countryside and “bush” (“hitching rides” in vehicles whose engine noises he memorizes), bonds with a half-Maori bus driver named John, who becomes the vagrant canine’s de facto master (until he dies of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident), and with other smitten humans, hooks up with the equally ornery “Red Cat” (a feline brawler who becomes Red Dog’s unlikely friend), and circumvents the disapproval of Aussie animal-haters everywhere. The story has some charm, but it’s awfully slack, its paragraphs swollen by pointless filler (Red Dog’s women friends “shopped for souvenirs, but didn’t find anything that they really liked,” etc.). The dog himself (“this obstinate, valiant soul who seemed such a typical Western Australian”) has an appealing grittiness, but the adults who adore him are, to varying degrees, generic and/or moronic—and the critter’s demise provokes a protracted volley of sentimental farewells as fulsome as those that accompanied the passing of Dickens’s Little Nell.
The thousands of readers who loved Corelli’s Mandolin have waited impatiently for its author’s next novel, so one understands why this innocuous little non-book was published. But why was it written?