Here it is: Fifteen Dogs, the book that won the Giller!(Which, for the record, I totally called.)
The place: a Toronto bar.
The players: Hermes and Apollo, somehow not quite out of place in a Toronto bar.
The bet: if granted human intelligence, might dogs be able to live happy lives – and die happy? Or is happiness naturally unable to coexist with the same sentience that makes humans, well, human?
That’s the book in a nutshell. Can dogs die happy? I knew going into it that it was going to break my heart in half and stomp on the pieces.
Which is why I was kind of surprised – and a little disappointed – when it didn’t.
I have to preface this conversation with a disclaimer: this book is absolutely wonderful, and it won the Giller for a reason. It’s a comfortable story, amiable, fantastical without making the reader stretch too far. It winds along like a country summer road – purposeful, but not insistent. It’s the sort of tale you might be told by your favourite uncle when you’re sick. It’s so very Canadian – without being stiflingly Canadian.
But it didn’t make me cry, or really hit me as hard as I thought it would. Which is a little sad, in a way. Sometimes you just want to read a sad book and have a good cry. You know?
First of all, I had the climax spoiled for me by this interview with André Alexis, which is a great interview except for the rude moment where it spoils the ending with absolutely no warning. (Oh, yeah. Don’t click that link because it spoils the ending / one of the most emotionally striking scenes of the book.) It’s just a short excerpt, but even reading it completely out of context made my heart jump into my mouth. Here we go, I thought to myself. This book is going to make me bawl my eyes out.
But it didn’t. When I read the same passage in context, it barely touched me at all. I had to read it again to make sure I was reading the same climax, which it was. It was an odd experience, like thinking you hear someone at the door and answering it, only to find no one there at all.
On one hand, it’s an excellent book – lovely and wry and clever enough to avoid reminding you how clever it is. The dogs aren’t just dogs but people, in all the wonderful, awful ways that people can be. They use their new consciousness and self-awareness to build a new culture – becoming artistic and manipulative and nostalgic. On the other hand, the tale settles so well into a contemplative groove that the emotional moments simply don’t pop as well. So it’s a bit of a puzzle, at least to me. I’ve seen plenty of other reviewers who say they cried at length, so maybe you should trust them instead.
Ultimately, Fifteen Dogs is full of sweet, keen moments – notably punctuated with poems written by one of the dogs.
This book is like a summer evening, or a sigh. It feels soft and sort of woodsy, in a clean and comforting way. It’s a great little shining gem of CanLit – not as flashy as a diamond, perhaps, but certainly a sunny little citrine of a novel, bright in the same was as the tumbling water of a river flashing through the trees.
(If you want even more Giller goodness, browse through the rest of my Giller Prize 2015 reviews and coverage.)