April 03, 2008

(+++) A DOG’S LIFE

The Labrador Pact. By Matt Haig. Viking. $23.95.

      Part animal fable, part family-in-trouble story, and 100% tearjerker, The Labrador Pact wants so badly to follow in the tradition of Watership Down and Lives of the Monster Dogs that it’s hard not to root for it to do so. It doesn’t, though – Matt Haig’s book leans too heavily on soap-opera formula, sensationalism and the less savory elements of animal-human relationships to deserve classic status. It could make a good movie (film rights have already been sold), but it’s not an entirely successful novel.

      Still, it is partly successful in a variety of ways, and is especially good at balancing the comic and serious elements of life until things get really sticky toward the end and the whole book deteriorates into melodrama.

      The pact of the title consists, in simplest form, of the three words, “Duty Over All,” but the implementation of the pact is a great deal more complicated – and that is what the novel is about. The narrative proceeds mostly at a swift pace: Prince, the lab member of the human Hunter family, tells the story of the ways in which parents Adam and Kate and teenage children Hal and Charlotte handle everyday stresses (work, money, love, teen angst), and then what happens when they face some stresses that do not occur every day – the death of Kate’s father and Kate’s mother moving in. This upsets the relatively straightforward rhythm of Hunter family life in mostly predictable ways, ranging from acting-out by the teenagers to a friendship between Adam and an attractive woman named Emily.

      As the human-world events proceed, so do ones in Prince’s canine world; and it soon turns out that the surface level of both worlds is at odds with what is going on underneath. Prince receives considerable instruction and enlightenment from the knowledgeable Henry, for example, but Henry harbors secrets that form part of the novel’s climax. And the Pact – elements of which Prince discusses periodically, in sections that disrupt the book’s narrative flow but showcase the difficulty of figuring out how to apply any set of moral standards in complex circumstances – seems increasingly at odds with what Prince observes in the world of the Hunters. Eventually, in the ethical climax of the book, Prince needs to decide whether the Pact is indeed sacrosanct or whether the only way to preserve the Hunters, as he is determined to do, may involve breaking the Pact. Prince’s decision has major ripple effects that turn the book far more serious all the way to the end; but despite the fact that readers will come to admire Prince and care for him, the notion of his moral quandaries and his ongoing debates with his fellow canines really does become a bit much. It’s as if this Prince is Hamlet, eternally and tragically trying to figure out the right thing to do, while the Hunters (whose name is certainly symbolic of something) seem to stumble about like characters from some other play. The Hamlet reference is perhaps not so far-fetched – Haig’s previous novel, The Dead Fathers Club, was an update of Shakespeare’s play – but if Haig thought to bring extra resonance to his new book with such echoes, he overestimated their effect. The whole family-crisis model is much older than Shakespeare and has been endlessly overdone in book after book. Haig brings to it an offbeat perspective – Prince’s – but no real new insight. So for all the strength of its narrative and for all its impressive pacing, The Labrador Pact really turns on a gimmick, and that is not enough to make it an unqualified must-read.

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