Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sleeping Dogs

I've been meaning to read something by Australian writer Sonya Hartnett for ages and am very glad that I finally have. In Sydney a few months ago I picked up a copy of Sleeping Dogs, a short novel of Harnett's from 1995. I chose this novel pretty much at random. I've since realised that some her more recent novels have had more attention overseas, particularly Thursday's Child which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2002.

Sleeping Dogs is a short and uncomfortable, but very interesting, read. Hartnett is a very literary writer. By that I mean that she seems to wear some of her influences on her sleeve. I felt echoes of Faulkner in this novel. At times the novel could be taking place in the deep south of America rather than in rural Australia and Hartnett has previously been described as writing in a kind of southern Gothic style. I felt an echo of some of the Russian writers here too, and there is explicit reference to the characters reading Crime and Punishment. This is not a criticism of her writing. Sleeping Dogs is a richer and more sophisticated novel for its allusions to other works of literature.

Sleeping Dogs examines the warped morality that has developed in the fiercely loyal and isolated Willow family. The family is dominated by their charismatic and cruel father, Griffin, who strictly controls his children, most of whom are adults now, but who are unable to leave the claustrophobic world of their family. They own a decrepit, run-down farm and have been forced to admit outsiders into their world in order to earn money by running a caravan park. Aside from their business, the family exists outside of society, inventing their own rules and moral codes. Within their decaying world, violence and incest have become acceptable. It takes an outsider in the form of an artist who stays in his caravan on the property to challenge the family and the way they live.

Hartnett's novel is classified as Young Adult fiction and, once again, I have to question why. It's not that I think the material is particularly inappropriate, although this novel is certainly disturbing and challenging and probably best for older teenagers, but that Hartnett's work stands on its own as a work of adult fiction. The central characters are hardly children (they are in their twenties) and the novel has a sophistication more usually found in adult literary fiction. I can only presume that publishers like categories and that once you are pegged as a 'children's writer' you are destined to remain in that category forever.

Sleeping Dogs is a dark and unsettling novel. It's not one that I'd want to re-read in a hurry because of this. But it is written with great skill. Hartnett creates atmosphere like few other contemporary writers can and I felt totally convinced by the world that she creates in this novel. I am definitely going to try to read some more of her work, but might need a few lighter reads in between...

3 comments:

Brandon said...

This does sound like a disturbing book. I'll have to keep it in mind.

Daniel said...

I've read this book and I loved it. I would reccomend it to anyone but particularly Young Adult Boys. It is just one of those books that I couldn't put down.

Bookworm said...

I've read this book as well as other ones by Hartnett and this one by far has proven to be my favorite. It's ending is very sad and unjust but that's probably why it has remained with me for so long. I know that I've read an exceptional book when I care about the characters and they stay with me for a long time.