Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 April 2020 from Gallic Books
Franck and Lise, a French couple in the film industry, rent a cottage in the quiet hills of the French Lot to get away from the stresses of modern life.
In this remote corner of the world, there is no phone signal. A mysterious dog emerges, looking for a new master. Ghosts of a dark past run wild in these hills, where a German lion tamer took refuge in the First World War…
Franck and Lise are confronted with nature at its most brutal. And they are about to discover that man and beast have more in common than they think.
Wild Dog is set in an isolated part of the Auvergne, France. The novel is set in two distinct time zones and told in chapters which mostly alternate. The 1914/15 sections are very strong, a mixture of historical fact as the author depicts the impact of the Great War on a poor farming community and what happens when they lose not only their men, but also their animals to the cause of the war.
Joncour paints a grim and realistic picture of life at that time and in the chiascuro of the lives of these villagers he brings in a slightly fantastical figure who literally lives above the villagers, in the abandoned mountains, almost as if he is towering over them. The German animal trainer, a former circus performer, has brought his lions and tigers to the Auvergne to hide them away, and though he is seldom seen, the impact of his presence is felt every time the beasts roar.
His presence is a troubling one for the villagers. For one thing he is German and in hiding. He keeps himself to himself and the villagers, who are themselves hiding a flock of sheep in the mountains, know that at least his beasts will deter the wolves that roam there. But when it becomes clear that the Doctor’s widow, 30 year old Josephine, whose husband is presumed lost in the war, has formed a bond with the German, tongues are set alight.
The second time zone is contemporary, set in the summer of 2017. Lise is no longer an actress. Recovering from cancer, she has sought out a place for a three week holiday where she can commune with nature; a place where she can stay without the need for intrusive technology, or mobile phones or any of the contemporary white noise that accompanies so much of modern living. She wants a simpler, healthier environment and this cottage she has found, high in the hills amid a swathe of trees, is both hidden from sight and far enough away from the village to be pretty inaccessible. There is no noisy industry, no pollution, just nature.
Lisa is delighted. Her husband Franck, a film producer, no longer as successful as he once was, has just gone into partnership with two young men from the games industry and is finding all their talk of ‘content’ and streaming a bit of an anathema to his love of art house cinema and celluloid. He is appalled at the thought of spending three weeks without a landline, a mobile signal or wifi or any way of connecting with his business.
This part of the French Lot is wild and uninhibited in nature and all around they are surrounded by the signs of wildlife, some distinctly wilder than others.
Wild Dog connects these two time zones through the nature that mainly unchanging, surrounds these characters. Lise and Franck are looking for different things, but living close to nature without technology will bring them closer together and though the impact on Lise is beneficial, the more startling impact is on Franck who begins to understand what it is to rely on the wild for everything you need to survive.
Joncour’s very real strength is in the way he portrays the landscape, nature and the wild beauty of the countryside that surrounds them. This is nature at its most alive; wild, noisy, unforgiving. It has the effect of making soft city dwellers understand what they have lost and to begin to restore the raw power that nature can bestow.
A large dog connects the two timelines as Joncour shows us all too clearly how much we have forgotten about our basic natures and how we used to connect to animals and the nature that surrounds us. Evolution, he seems to be saying, may not be everything it’s cracked up to be.
Joncour writes well and sumptuously. His pace is slow and rhythmic, in tune with a less frenetic way of life and a deeper connection to nature. Yet he also highlights the inherent danger of such wildness and as we watch Franck deserting his vegetarian lifestyle and reverting to a carnivore, we are prompted to reflect on the thin line between man and beast, between nature’s sinister side and so called sophistication.
Verdict: Wild Dog is a well-structured, tense and deeply atmospheric novel. I enjoyed it, especially the earlier time period, though I did find some of the contemporary story line a little much. But this is a beautifully written novel, rich in language and allegory and most definitely worth spending time on.
Serge Joncour is a French novelist and screenwriter. He was born in Paris in 1961 and studied philosophy at university before deciding to become a writer. His first novel, Vu, was published by Le Dilettante in 1998. He wrote the screenplay for Sarah’s Key starring Kristin Scott Thomas, released in 2011. His 2016 novel Repose-toi sur moi won the Prix Interallié.
Wild Dog (Chien loup), winner of the Prix Landerneau des Lecteurs, is the first of his novels to be published in English.