Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 360 pages; 2004.
Martin Blackman is a psychiatrist who returns to Adelaide, Australia, after a decade living and working in London. He brings his new wife, Lucy, also a psychiatrist, with him. The couple have several weeks to kill before their new posts start, and so it is that Martin and Lucy hook-up with Felix, one of Martin’s childhood friends, who lives on a farm in the hills outside of the city.
Felix is a brilliant surgeon and has spent a large amount of time living and working in the Australian outback, specifically helping aboriginal communities. But the experience has changed him:
An athlete at school, full-bodied and muscular, he has shrunk to skin and bone. But his manner shocks me most of all — this air of cool mockery, so unlike the Felix of old.
Within minutes of meeting Lucy for the first time Felix has been incredibly rude and scathing towards her, a pattern that is to follow every time the trio meet up. But later it becomes obvious that his obnoxious attitude is a shield for his true feelings: he has fallen in love with her. And so, without wishing to include any plot spoilers in this review, the story focuses on a very tricky, morally ambiguous ménage à trois that has drastic and long-lasting repercussions for all of the characters.
An unsettling read
Admittedly I found Three Dog Night to be quite an unsettling and disturbing book. As much as I enjoyed Goldsworthy’s lovely writing style, heavily influenced by the landscape and wildlife of Australia (I felt homesick reading his descriptions of the weather — “a luminous morning saturated with sunlight and parrots” and the landscape — “a geometric patchwork of orchard groves and vine rows and plush carpet-squares of lucerne and clover”), I found it difficult to like any of the characters. Martin, the narrator, comes across as particularly weak-willed and so in love with his wife that it becomes almost sickening to read.
If love is an obsessive-compulsive disorder […] then I have been ill for years. But never as sick with bliss, as diseased, as now.
And Lucy, subject to so much adulation from her husband and just about everyone else she meets, comes across as nothing more than a sexual object, albeit with a limp that all the men in this novel seem creepily obsessed by. Meanwhile Felix is so utterly detestable you really wish he’d either disappear out of the storyline or someone would throw the punch I so wanted to send his way!
As ever, I know that you shouldn’t judge a book merely on the basis of whether you like the characters or not. That Goldsworthy can craft such a highly entertaining and readable novel out of these occasionally snooty, high-browed and weak-willed people speaks volumes for his writing ability. I found all the characters to behave in inexplicable ways; they puzzled me, irritated me and sometimes made me angry. But I still wanted to find out what happened to them…
As much as I did not love the book, I did admire it and am glad I read it. It’s very much a story about love, friendship, betrayal, divided loyalties and alienation. But it also provides a fascinating glimpse into aboriginal culture and traditions, made all the more striking when the book largely revolves around characters whom generally inhabit the world of western medicine, with its white coats, doctors and reliance on science and technology.
About the author
For those who don’t know, Goldsworthy is an Australian GP who also happens to be an award-winning writer of novels, poetry and short stories. According to wikipedia, he also writes opera libretti and has been credited as a writer on three films. Last month he was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for service to literature as an author and poet, through arts administration, and to the community”.
Three Dog Night, first published in 2003, is his sixth novel. It won the the 2004 Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award and seems to have been shortlisted for every other award going including: the 2003 Colin Roderick Award; the 2004 Miles Franklin Award; the 2004 The Courier-Mail Book of the Year; the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; and the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, it made the longlist for the 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, too.