The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.
The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.
But gradually a persona of the woman’s friend emerges. He was a professor teaching creative writing, and at one point she was his student. They have a brief affair, but their romantic relationship quickly peters out. And yet, they remain the best of friends, very close in fact, much to the envy and chagrin of his wives. We learn that the man was married thrice, but divorced twice. The wives are not named either but are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, Wife Three. While his marriages, while they lasted, were unions based on love and passion, Wife One and Wife Two were always disturbed by the fact that they were never his confidantes in the way the narrator was.
Meanwhile, when Wife Three requests to meet our narrator, the latter is perturbed but she agrees. It seems that Wife Three has an unusual request. Now that her husband is no more, she does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.
One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. With a few failed relationships behind her and now quite alone, our narrator seeks solace in Apollo’s presence. She reads Rilke’s poems to him, takes him for walks to the park, and allows him to sleep on her bed, his huge bulk is a constant source of comfort to her.
It occurs to me that someone used to read to Apollo. Not that I think he was a trained certified therapy dog. But I believe that someone must have read aloud to him – or if not to him at least while he was present – and that his memory of that experience is a happy one.
Or maybe Apollo is a canine genius who has figured something out about me and books. Maybe he understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.
Our narrator also ponders on the intelligence of dogs, whether they are capable of feelings, and the endless trouble they endure of making themselves understood to a human.
She questions – Does a dog understand betrayal? For instance, she talks about mastiffs and their great size and how they are known for being fiercely protective and loyal to their masters. But let us suppose, the master decides to abandon it one day. Will that mastiff feel betrayed? After some contemplation, Nunez decides probably not. It is more likely that the main thing on the mastiff’s mind will be – Who will protect my master now?
Another point to think about – What do we really know about animal suffering? She cites that there is evidence of dogs and animals having a higher tolerance for pain than humans do. But their true capacity for suffering, like the true measure of their intelligence, must remain a mystery.
The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. Apollo grieves in his own way for his dead master and our narrator tries various tricks to draw him out like music and massage therapies. But it is apparent to us that the narrator is also profoundly affected by the loss of her dear friend.
The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation calls to ask how I am. I tell him about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m skeptical about pet shrinks, and he says, That’s not what I meant.
Maybe, what she felt for him was something deeper, it could be that she was in love with him. She doesn’t readily acknowledge this, but we know that the two of them shared a special bond, which was not sexual, but one of lasting friendship, the kind where they could easily confide and talk to each other. When our narrator wonders why she is looking after his dog, she admits that perhaps on some subconscious level, she is hoping that the love she displays towards Apollo will bring her dead friend back too.
As Apollo gradually becomes an intrinsic part of our narrator’s life, she realizes that she has been shunning her friends and acquaintances and veering more and more towards solitude. She becomes increasingly obsessed with his care to the point that she prefers his company rather than to reach out for any sort of human connection.
He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.
In a way, the novel is akin to a letter that the narrator is writing to her late friend, she addresses him as ‘you’ throughout the book. Nunez’s writing is simple, lucid…and to emphasize her ideas, she relies on anecdotes and interesting references, be it books, films or newspaper articles. She particularly focuses on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip, and the intense love Ackerley felt for his pet, almost as if they were in a serious relationship. That book is new to me but I did read his We Think the World of You many years ago, which I thought was brilliant. The other book frequently mentioned is Coetzee’s Disgrace.
Filled with wry observations and keen insights into friendship, the nature of love, suicide and its implications, the art of writing and whether it is the right medium to process grief and so on, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.