I picked up this small volume from the library after I’d written my review of Hopscotch, Jane Messer’s account of the impact of the Global Financial Crisis upon a middle-class Sydney family. I dimly remembered having read another review or article about Jennings’ 2003 novel about Wall Street, Moral Hazard, which commented about how few women write about the financial world, or feature in it as characters with agency.
As I searched in vain for that article, I disappeared down the rabbit hole of the internet, and came up with Jennings’ memoir Stanley and Sophie. Having been revising my own memoir, and researching writing about animals for my young adult novel, I thought I might kill two birds with one stone by reading this book.
The factual and fictional blur frequently in Jennings’ writing. Moral Hazard is a novel about a woman who writes speeches for financiers by day, and by night cares for a husband losing his mind to Alzheimer’s. This book, as a memoir, picks up where that left off, with Jennings living in New York and mourning to her husband who also had died from Alzheimer’s.
Jennings had been raised on a farm in Australia and for her, dogs were working animals kept outside, ‘housed in kennels made from corrugated iron that were well away from where we lived, with no concession to the weather, which in winter was cold enough for ice form on puddles and dams and in the summer hot enough to make the lead fall out of pencils’ (11). When the dogs grew old, they ‘were retired under a rainwater tank where it was blessedly shady, sweetly cool’ (11). In her personality, she was avowedly unsentimental. ‘Call me cold,’ she states. ‘Actually, call me vinegary’ (10).
Why, then, does she fall head over heels in love with a dog? She missed her husband and her marriage, but she was also suffering from ‘the prolonged exposure to Alzheimer’s … I hadn’t been released from it. Instead, I was trapped in a place where reluctance leached through the walls, nihilism pooled on the floor. I tried caulking the holes with work and antidepressants, but still the insistent seepage, still the sorrow. Ashes and dishwater’ (20). When she met Stanley, ‘an aristocratic alpha male border terrier’ (4), it’s love at first sight. ‘Stanley had a job’, she writes, ‘to bring me into the sunlight’ (21).
And so he did, by offering structure to her days, walks, companionship and entertainment. However, Stanley was lonely, and when another border terrier, Sophie, was offered up as a companion, Jennings adopted her too. Despite their daily walks, however, the dogs were confined to an apartment, and Jennings was confined ‘by memories of my marriage, by places and possessions that triggered the memories’ (91). She made the heartbreaking decision to give the dogs away.
The second part of the book is set in Bali, where Jennings stays with her brother. The dogs in this place are not reared for companionship, but as offerings. Once despatched, they keep watch on the house as spirits. Jennings comes to know as macaque known as Chico, who becomes tetchy for a mate. They find him a small female known as Cheeky at the bird market in Denpasar, where macaques ‘sat on top of cages, drooping and despondent, their will to live all but extinguished. Some would become pets, while others would be slaughtered for their brains, believed to impart energy. All of them had been poached, their mothers killed’ (125).
It was at this point that the book came alive for me; previously I’d had no connection to it, possibly because Jennings hadn’t been feeling much either. Cheeky, motherless, attaches herself to Jennings and wails when she leaves, ‘a never-ending susurrus of complaint and dispossession’ (128). The sounds and the experience, she writes, ‘tapped directly into the sadness that had accumulated in me. My stiff upper lip, kept as firmly in place as possible since my husband’s death, went slack. I started to cry and couldn’t stop’ (129).
It was also at this point that the book became more intellectually engaging. Is a dog, however cossetted, well-fed, well-walked and groomed, any different to a monkey tied to a chain, or to the endangered baboon and baby Sumatran tiger, kept under the floorboards by a vendor at the bird market for buyers of stature? We keep animals for our pleasure, but what about theirs? Do they want to be our pets, and are we right to make them so even after thousands of years of domestication? And why do we keep doing this: making them our own? Is it because their humanity sometimes exceeds ours?
For against Jennings’ grief and interactions with animals is set the destruction of the World Trade Towers and the Bali bombings. ‘I loved my dogs,’ she writes, ‘and my heart went out to the monkeys. When we cry for our animals, we cross for the whole sodding mess. The whole sodding, sorry mess’ (156).
Perhaps the answer lies in a story written by Sophie’s new owner, who fell for her too and knew she would be hers. He describes how dogs ‘take us out of our brains and down into the street, where we are more real, more vivid; their attention keeps us in place and allows us constant contact with the sensate world in which we live’ (179). Animals, in other words, remind us that we are animals too, and therein lies their joy. For people corralled in houses away from the brush of undergrowth, with tarmac instead of soil underfoot, the sensations of stroking a dog’s head, of feeling a cat’s claws as they knead before settling into your lap, of studying the glossy round of a bird’s eye, all remind us of who we are and where we have come from.
As with many of Jennings’ other works (such as Snake, which I reviewed last year), this is a small book which, like gelato, melts on the tongue, her phrases like dissolving sugar. Stanley slept with her at night, ‘starting the evening curled into a tight comma, by morning monopolising all the pillow like a grand pasha’ (21). The chapters are succinct, their endings often a perfect cadence, as in ‘If I Could Stop the Wind Blowing’. After an altercation with a Republican over Stanley’s marking of his door, Sophie is encouraged to forever after ‘hoist her bottom high in the air and splash her message on the glossy black paint’ (79) and she is subsequently rewarded with the superlative, ‘Best girl in the world’ (79). I could read Jennings’ dogs on the page as well as if I might have in person, and this lent extra charm to the work.
As I’m deaf, I compensate for the things I can’t hear by reading body language, and on I love reading dogs as much as I do people. When my father leaves the house to work on his renovations, his whippet paces delicately, tail between her legs, her eyes like dark saucers. She and my mother’s dog, a tiny, feisty cavadoodle, will sit by the window all day, noses pressed to the glass, until he returns. My sister’s cocker spaniel is Bentley, a dumb blonde of a dog who dug a solid hole in my heart when I lived in her house for a year. A puppy, he sat at my feet as I wrote Entitlement and followed me from room to room. Now an adult, he’ll sit when he’s told to, but quivers with the anticipation of my body loosening and bending down to embrace him, after which point he will jump uncontrollably. As Jennings puts it, ‘What we love most about dogs is that they are transparent, their emotions pure, unmuddied by ambiguity even when torn by conflicting desires. They express themselves with graphic simplicity’ (42). Even I, not demonstrative by nature, am secretly delighted by the way he comes barrelling through the door when he sees me, a 20 kg mass of fur and enthusiasm. When do we ever bowl each over with such love?
This is my 5th review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.