Helen Humphrey’s Wild Dogs

In her most recent novel Wild Dogs, Canadian author Helen Humphreys returns to a theme from her previous book The Lost Garden: the wildness of the heart. In both novels, Humphreys pursues this theme through a central metaphor found in the book’s title. In The Lost Garden, the heroine, a horticulturist named Gwen, sets out to understand a secret, abandoned garden overgrown from years of neglect. Part of what Gwen finds while working is her own heart shaped by loss and yearning. The crucial metaphor in Wild Dogs brings up an unruliness that’s more disturbing than Gwen’s lost garden. Here a pack of feral dogs is living in the woods in a depressed, northern town. Many of these dogs used to be domesticated but appear to have forgotten their former lives and human owners. Six of these humans come to the edge of the woods every night to call out their dogs’ names. It soon becomes clear that these people are calling out for something in their own hearts that doesn’t respond to anything as civilized as names or words.

Judging from Humphreys’ use of metaphor, it’s not surprising that she wrote poetry before turning her attention to fiction. Wild Dogs is her fourth novel and the first one set in the present. The Lost Garden takes place in England in 1941 and touches upon the tragedies of World War I and II. The wildness of Gwen’s garden is rooted in the devastating losses that the English suffered in the fighting. Almost all of the gardeners who used to work at the estate where Gwen lives were killed in the Great War, and so the plants, flowers and trees on the property have gone without care for years. Wild Dogs grapples not with the recorded violence of history but with a brutality that is silenced, intimate and of the moment. The novel takes place in an unnamed town where the main factory has closed. Some of the townspeople have been setting their dogs loose in the woods because they can’t afford to feed them anymore. One of the novel’s main characters Alice has been supporting her boyfriend, who’s been laid off from the factory. She pumps gas, a job her boyfriend thinks is beneath him. He is the one who drops her dog off next to the forest, and she leaves him at the beginning of the novel because of it. Her story is not unusual among the six people who regularly gather to try to get their dogs back. These strangers come to tell each other how they lost their pets. The reader soon learns that Alice is not the only one whose dog was turned out by someone close to her.

The plot of Wild Dogs is unusual and hard to describe without giving away too much. Carol Seajay talks about the problem of summarizing this novel in her newsletter Books to Watch Out For. (If following the link, scroll down on the newsletter’s page for the entry on Wild Dogs.) Seajay contacted Lambda to insist that Humphreys’ novel be added to the shortlist for Lesbian Fiction, and this past May, it won the literary prize, tying with Babyji by Abha Dawesar. In writing about Wild Dogs this past spring, Seajay wanted to introduce the book to a wider lesbian readership. I am following in her footsteps by recommending it to anyone interested in poetic and emotionally substantial novels. This book is moving, and its structure, which recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, is both solid and subtle. What is best about the book is what causes it to defy the glib, twenty-five-word descriptions that sum up so many novels: its depth and wildness.

Originally posted on 8.13.2006