'That was the summer ...' begins Josephine Rowe's début novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, and with this classic overture she evokes that most common of literary tropes, the summer in adolescence that changes everything. But this is the summer, she continues, when a sperm whale washes up dead at Mount Martha, and all the best cartoons go off the air, replaced by broadcasts of the first Gulf War, and a neighbourhood girl digs her nails into flesh until the blood breaks through. So much for the summer of teenage love. Rowe makes it clear from the first paragraph of this clenched, resolute study of family damage that sentiment has no place here. She will reveal something harder and truer.
Already known for her disciplined short stories, poetry, and essays, Rowe has made some firm choices in this first novel. She has decided to focus tightly on one family, bestowing on each member – young Ruby ('Ru'), her rebellious older sister Lani, weary and embittered mother, Evelyn, messed-up Vietnam veteran father, Jack, and his brother 'Tetch' – their own extended chapter, narration, and perspective. The novel is set in what must be 1991, as the war begins, in a town in country Victoria, and as Jack reaches the limits of his post-traumatic endurance and takes off, the rest of the family steps forward, no longer subdued, and speaks in turn. The cast of characters might seem stereotypical, but Rowe gives each a distinct treatment, her assurance in the short fiction form making each account into compelling and singular emotional experiences which keep propelling the novel, even as each tale prickles more and more, every page revealing carefully stitched gashes and fresh hurts.