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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Lost Dog": Hunt for a dog yields some ghosts

Michelle de Kretser's engrossing third novel "The Lost Dog" is at its heart a multilayered ghost story, haunted by the characters who aren't there.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Lost Dog"

by Michelle de Kretser

Little, Brown, 326 pp., $24.99

Michelle de Kretser's engrossing third novel "The Lost Dog" is at its heart a multilayered ghost story, haunted by the characters who aren't there.

Tom Loxley, a professor writing a book about Henry James ("Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny"), searches for his lost dog, "a lean white dog, rust-splotched," in the Australian outback.

The absent creature, whose name we never learn, nonetheless takes over the narrative, a desperate focus for Tom as he tries to avoid other ghosts: memories of his childhood in India and, later, the very foreign-seeming Australia; the mysteriously vanished husband of Tom's love interest, artist Nelly Zhang; the young woman Tom's aging, querulous mother Iris once was.

Though de Kretser's vivid yet spare prose style doesn't resemble that of James, he too is a ghost who benignly haunts this novel (and, especially, its elegant final turn of the screw). Tom tells Nelly, of James the novelist, "He wanted to distance himself from the literary past, from old forms like Gothic. But that stuff wafts around his work like a smell he's too exquisite to mention."

Tom, too, wants to distance himself from his past but can't; it's present in the many odors — some foul, some earthy, some appealing — that de Kretser allows to waft throughout "The Lost Dog." Odor, notes Tom, "marked the passage from the pure to the putrid, from the raw to the cooked, from inside to outside the body."

As Tom continues his worried attempts to sniff out the missing dog, with the enigmatic Nelly often at his side, the novel becomes increasingly more satisfying; narrative threads that seem airy and vague early on are fleshed out and intricately knotted. Descriptions of minor characters are rich and at times wonderfully comic, such as the sketch of Tom's much-put-upon Aunt Audrey: "She prepared for Christmas as for a catastrophe, warning, 'It'll be here before you know it,' weeks ahead of the feast, observing its advance with the grim satisfaction of an Old Testament prophet notified that the first wave of locusts had been sighted."

De Kretser, whose previous novel "The Hamilton Case" won several literary awards, confidently marshals her reader back and forth through the book's complex flashback structure, keeping us in suspense (will Tom find the dog?) even as we read simply for the pleasure of her prose. "Do you think we create mysteries because we crave explanations?" asks Nelly at one point. Perhaps, but de Kretser knows when to explain, and when to leave us deliciously wondering.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic

for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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