Book Review

Wild Dog by Serge Joncour tr. by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh

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.

A literary sensation in France, Wild Dog is a dark, menacing tale of isolation, human nature and the infinite savagery of the wild. 

Wild Dog is set in the small hamlet of Orcières and alternates between the dual timelines of 1914 and 2017. 

In 1914, we see the beginning of the First World War.  Those who are eligible are called up to serve their country, but rather than focussing on the War, Joncour looks at the toll on those left behind, striving to continue in difficult circumstances and both desperate for and fearful of news from the front.  As a farming community, the women of Orcières are left to bring in the harvest without man or beast – also requisitioned for the War effort – to ease the burden, having to rely upon themselves to keep things running smoothly.  I could read a whole novel focussing on this timeline alone.  I like that it’s a different perspective to most novels set during this time, and I think that Joncour perfectly captures the fear, the guilt, and the hardship of those who are left to carry on as well as they can. 

It’s at this time that Wolfgang Hollzenmaier – a German lion tamer – arrives, seeking refuge for himself and his beasts.  The villagers agree to harbour him, and yet soon grow fearful as the animals’ roars drift down to them.  It’s a time that is rife with superstition, and Wolfgang is soon blamed for everything that goes wrong – even the bad weather they experience.  He is seen as something other, different to themselves in so many ways, and the community begin to fear him.  Tension slowly builds as things become increasingly difficult for all, and I was desperate to know what the outcome would be as suspicions mount and the potential for violence increases.

In 2017, Lise and Franck rent a gîte for their summer break.  It’s in a remote location with no mobile signal or internet, and while Lise adapts immediately, Franck is clearly uncomfortable.  I found Franck to be symbolic of the modern-day individual.  He’s used to having his phone almost permanently in hand with instant access to news and able to communicate at the touch of a button.  With his phone rendered largely useless, Franck feels anxious at his sudden disconnection.  He fears the landscape around him – something totally out of his control and experience, and yet he slowly adjusts, coming to appreciate the breathing space and the beautiful wilderness of his surroundings. 

Both Franck and Lise work in the film industry, Lise as an actor and Franck a producer.  It’s clear that their careers are on the wane, and while Lise seems to have accepted this, Franck is still fighting against the tide of big tech and the move away from feature films to shorter, episodic productions.  His two young business partners are keen to jump on the Netflix bandwagon, and pressurise Franck to go along with their schemes despite his obvious reluctance.  This break gives Franck the opportunity to come up with a plan of his own and takes an unexpected direction as he decides how to proceed.

As the novel progresses, we witness nature in all its forms – the natural world and the beauty and barbarity inherent within as well as the nature of man and beast and the way in which there isn’t always much difference between the two.  I like the way in which Lise and Franck soon begin to see the history of their location without fully understanding its impact – it holds more meaning for the reader who has sight of the alternative timeline.  It’s cleverly done, and the plot comes with a few surprises that I wasn’t expecting.  Wild Dog is a wonderful novel that combines historical fiction with a depiction of the world as it is today and the benefits of switching off from time to time.  Suspenseful, eerie, and hugely enjoyable. 

Wild Dog is published by Gallic Books and is available now in paperback and eBook formats.  Huge thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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