Quietly brilliant and darkly funny, Nunez's (Sempre Susan, 2011, etc.) latest novel finds her on familiar turf with an aggressively unsentimental interrogation of grief, writing, and the human-canine bond.
After her best friend and mentor's suicide, an unnamed middle-aged writing professor is bequeathed his well-behaved beast of a dog. Apollo is a majestic, if aging, Great Dane, whom her friend—like all the human characters, unnamed—found abandoned in Brooklyn and kept, against the rather reasonable protests of his third and final wife. And so, in the midst of her overwhelming grief for the man whose life has anchored hers, the woman agrees to take in the animal, despite the exceedingly clear terms of her rent-stabilized lease. Apollo, too, is grieving, in his doggy way—after his master’s death, he waited by the door round the clock (“you can’t explain death to a dog,” says Wife Three); now, in the woman’s care, he throws himself listlessly on the bed, all 180 pounds of him. And though she is a self-professed cat person—not because she prefers them, but because they are less indiscriminately devoted (“Give me a pet that can get along without me”)—the two become unlikely companions in mourning, eventually forming the kind of bond Rilke once described as love: “two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other." In contemplating her current situation—the loss, the dog—the woman is oriented by art: not just Rilke but Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, the relentlessly grim Swedish film Lilya 4-Ever, Joy Williams, Milan Kundera, the British writer J.R. Ackerley in love with his dog. It is a lonely novel: rigorous and stark, so elegant—so dismissive of conventional notions of plot—it hardly feels like fiction.
Breathtaking both in pain and in beauty; a singular book.