“No one in the village had ever heard sounds like that coming from the hills. Wild, desperate sounds. The first shrieks rang out around midnight, distant at first, but moving closer and closer.”
So begins Serge Joncour’s riveting novel, Wild Dog (Gallic Books), translated from the French by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh, and winner of the Landerneau Prize and a French award for environmental fiction. Its narratives alternate between one week in August 2017, and a full year at the outbreak of the First World War, both in the same remote corner of a Mid-Pyrenees region in France.
Lise, a former actress and cancer survivor, convinces Franck, her film producer husband, to rent a remote summer cottage atop a mountain for three weeks. They journey up the steep Mont d’Orcières and find what Lise yearns for: serenity amid nature. Free of beeping phones, wifi radio waves, or even a TV, they sleep with the cottage doors unlocked and windows open to the warm breeze.
ONE WOMAN’S PARADISE IS ANOTHER MAN’S PERIL
Where Lise discovers solace, frustration overwhelms Franck. Isolated without access to social media, he obsessively worries that his Parisian business partners will backstab him. A pair of yellow eyes watching him from nearby foliage sharpens his anxiety. But a surprising friendship with the mysterious animal — half wolf, half feral dog — inverts Franck’s worldview.
Over a hundred years before, a village at the foot of Mont d’Orcières loses its menfolk and animals, requisitioned to serve or feed the military of World War I. The villagers hide a flock of ewes in a sequestered meadow. Another secret preoccupies them: in a cottage atop the allegedly cursed mountain, they harbor a circus lion tamer and his eight beloved felines who would otherwise be fed to famished troops. At first, the lion tamer’s presence appears protective. Soon, however, many townsfolk feel trapped — above them, roaring beasts drool for fresh meat while war tightens its deadly circle on every side. In contrast, a beautiful widow finds herself magnetized to the tamer. Their heedless attraction changes the village’s fate.
DOG-EAT-DOG TRANSCENDS THE WILDERNESS
The genius of this novel lies in the malaise Joncour infuses into his writing. He reveals that the modern myth of nature as blissful escape clashes with the fact that, stripped of guns, humans would lead a fight-or-flight existence. The deafening drone of insects panics Franck, and even the lion tamer, with his hypnotic control of animals, must beware his own charges.
This uneasiness crosses into the psychology of the high-stakes business world. Franck’s fear of the wilderness rivals that of career irrelevancy. Without an operational cell phone, he almost goes mad wondering what double-dealing his sly, much younger business partners are up to. Joncour asks readers, do technology and social media facilitate our lives or encumber them? Franck’s emotional journey is by turns intense and heartwarming.
Francophile readers will enjoy the author’s depiction of the forested countryside. According to a 2018 interview, the mountaintop cottage and village are authentic places Joncour loves. His portraits of rustic life, from a contemporary town’s boisterous outdoor market to a centuries-old tradition of parading farm animals to their spring pasture, make the reader want to book a direct flight to southern France. The narrative also offers glimpses at the toll that war took on a generation. It pays homage to the emotional struggles of women caught between fear for survival and dread of an uncertain future on the home front.
Joncour masterfully bonds the present to the past while emphasizing human resilience. Above all, he gives insight into our diverse relationships with animals, whether they feed us, serve as companions … or threaten our lives. Wild Dog begins as a fascinating read and builds into a page-turner with a dynamic climax.
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