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The Labrador Pact
Viking, 341 pp., 2008; $23.95
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One would have to have a heart of stone not to be captivated by this bittersweet debut novel, now available in an American edition, in which Prince, a Labrador Retriever, narrates his heroic attempts to save his human family from the dangers that threaten their peace and security. That the novel in form is a reminiscence by Prince as he waits to be put down by his owner, who does not understand what Prince has done throughout to save the family from itself, testifies, of course, to the futility of his actions. But that this sad history is communicated to a younger Labrador as a cautionary tale in how best to perform as Labradors expect of themselves, turns it into a larger, tragicomic meditation on loyalty, sacrifice and the possibilities of idealism in a world of disillusionment and irresponsibility.

The situation is this: Originally obedient, the Springer Spaniels, having realized that humans can no longer take care of themselves and hence that the stability of their families cannot be taken for granted, no longer pay attention to humans’ welfare or intervene on their behalf. They begin to slip their leads; they live for the moment and for themselves; they learn to sniff for pleasure rather than for purpose. The humans hardly notice—“Lamp posts were still being splashed. Crotches were still being sniffed.”—and most of the breeds are quietly won over to the Springers’ cause. Not so the Labradors, who institute a compact, based on the immutable principles of “duty over all,” self-denial, non-violence and constant vigilance. To the extent that humans consider the breakdown of family bonds, they explain it through easy sociology: the demands of career, the secularization of Western society, unhealthy diet. But as usual in this novel, the dogs sniff out the problem all too well: Humans overly privilege one sense (sight), which too often makes them the victim of appearances; they don’t understand their own nature, as part of Nature; they are afraid of aging and death; they can’t come to terms with sex; and in general, think that with science, technology and culture, they can control desire and instinct. Relying on such apparatus, Haig suggests, makes humans lovable objects for Labradors’ protective instincts, but teaches them nothing about themselves. And, sadly, it’s the dogs who pay the price: Get too close to them and you’ll get hurt, Prince is warned by a non-Lab; and so indeed he is.

This novel works as well as it does because of two writerly strategies. First, Haig’s sensitive depiction of the Hunter family, who had rescued Prince as a pup from a shelter in a desperate attempt to shore up their own dissolving human relationships, wisely renders them neither evil nor psychopathic, even if disconcertingly typical and familiar in their failings. Adam, the father, irresolute and frustrated in both his career and marriage, becomes involved with a good-looking, ditzy aromatherapist. Kate, the mother, avoids marital intimacy through incessant housecleaning, but too easily acquiesces when her old lover reappears. Hal and Charlotte, the teenaged children, are predictably given over to rebellious acts with seedy friends. Prince knows how few internal resources this weak but finally sympathetic family can muster against threats from the outside. Second, Haig nicely complicates Prince’s personality beyond that of a mere virtuous automaton: At night, Prince dreams of running wild with his ancestral wolves; at one point, he falls into a reverie, intoxicated by the delectable leaf juice, worm blood and squirrel droppings of the park’s smell-heap. He later undergoes a profound crisis of belief when learning that his father figure, a Labrador named Henry, has morally compromised himself in blind adherence to the letter of the pact. Because Haig has made the moral choices complex, Prince’s final self-denying commitment to an ideal that will never be realized is all the more nuanced and profound.

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