Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, is a meditation on grief, writing, and the transcendent power of the human-canine bond. It is also the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for fiction.
How is one to mourn the sudden death of a loved one? For the novel’s narrator, whose best friend and literary mentor has taken his own life, there’s writing. There’s therapy. And there’s the unexpected companionship of a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound harlequin Great Dane.
The dog, a one-time stray, had belonged to the narrator’s friend. After his death, his widow, who had never wanted the dog, has put him in a kennel. “He didn’t understand that Daddy was never coming home again,” she tells the narrator. “He waited by the door day and night. For a while he wouldn’t even eat, I was afraid he’d starve to death. But the worst part was, every once in a while, he’d make this noise, this howling, or wailing, or whatever it was. Not loud, but strange, like a ghost or some other weird thing. It went on and on.”
The dog’s despair recalls, for the narrator, the remarkable story of the Japanese Akita, Hachiko, who is memorialized with a statue outside a Tokyo train station. The Akita would meet his master at the station each day upon the man’s return from work. After the man died, in 1925, the dog continued to show up at the station at the hour of the train’s arrival. He did this day after day, for nearly a decade, so devoted was he to his owner.*
It’s this devotion of dog to human, notes the narrator, “so instinctual that it’s given freely even to persons who are unworthy of it,” that has turned her into a cat person. “Give me a pet that can get along without me,” she says.
Still, despite her fondness for felines and living in a tiny, no-dogs-allowed New York City apartment building, the narrator opens her home to the mighty Dane. At first, he takes no interest in her, and she views him more as burden than companion. But that will change.
Whether the narrator will be able to keep the dog—and her home—provides the drama and the one plot line that runs through the novel. Otherwise, The Friend reads less like a narrative and more like a series of musings, scribbled in a diary, by a woman grappling with loss, loneliness, and the changing world she inhabits.
This unconventional structure gives the novel the feel of nonfiction as the narrator, a creative writing professor, wrestles with topics both timeless and contemporary, including suicide, the #MeToo movement, trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the writer’s life. All the while, weaving in quotations and anecdotes from the lives and works of writers and poets too numerous to name.
The narrator contemplates, for example, whether there is utility in writing to heal one’s wounds and discovers that on this, there is debate. Natalia Ginzburg said no, “You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.” But Isak Dinesen “believed that you could make any sorrow bearable by putting it into a story or telling a story about it.” Such storytelling worked for Virginia Woolf, who, the narrator points out, said that writing did for her what psychoanalysts did for their patients. But, wonders the narrator, “Does the effectiveness of the catharsis depend on the quality of the writing? And if a person finds catharsis by writing a book, does it matter whether or not the book is any good?”
Nunez’s prose in The Friend is crisp and spare; it is also infused with wit and humor. The characters go unnamed, save for the dog, Apollo, and the building’s super, Hector, who repeatedly tells the narrator, “You cannot keep that animal here.”
The Friend is a page-turner, due in large part to the unconventionality of the storytelling—as a reader, I was eager to discover just where the narrator was taking me. At its heart, though, The Friend is a novel about friendship—friendship between people and friendship between people and their dogs, those magnificent creatures who, the narrator says, “may well, in their mute unfathomable way, know us better than we know them.”
*Hollywood’s version of Hachiko’s story, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, was released in 2009. In the film, which takes place in a quaint New England town, Richard Gere stars as a music professor who takes in a lost Akita puppy. It’s a tear jerker, so have a box of tissues close at hand.