Book Review

Sleeping Dogs by Sonya Hartnett


Sleeping Dogs (Penguin 1995) by Sonya Hartnett is a young adult novel that explores the destructiveness of misguided and obsessive family loyalties. It marked the start of Hartnett’s award-winning career as a writer when it won the 1996 Kathleen Mitchell Award and the 1996 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award – Writing for Young Adults. Since then, Hartnett has produced many books for children, young adult and adult readers, a number of which have gone on to be shortlisted for or winners of significant national and international awards. She was also awarded the 2008 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for her contribution to children’s and young people’s literature.

The Willow family is at the centre of Sleeping Dogs. They live on a run-down farm in rural Australia. A dilapidated caravan park on the farm, a place that has never had the “same guest twice”, supplements the farm’s poor income. Alcoholic Griffin Willow is a threatening figure who forbids any of his five children from mixing with the park’s guests; strangers are not allowed in their lives. Grace Willow, the mentally unstable and ineffectual mother, doesn’t interfere in her husband’s control over the family. She spends most of her days sunk in a lounge chair letting the outside world carry on without her, waiting for the day when she can forget everything about her life.

Throughout the story Willow family traits are juxtaposed with that of a pack of wild dogs – the way they behave, the way they live, the family’s hierarchy. “Two or three of them are always awake”, “sentinels watching”, or more often spying, especially the sadistic and surly youngest Willow child, Speck. Edward, the uncomplaining eldest son, tries to salvage the farm from ruin where his father has failed, and believes “this house, this land, that father, that mother” to be his only existence.

Griffin favours his manipulative eldest daughter Michelle, whereas Jordan, his dreamy and artistically talented son, is regularly the victim of Griffin’s violent thrashings. Michelle tells Jordan to accept the beatings as the punishment they deserve. “Sometimes, two wrongs can make a right,” Michelle tells Jordan. The other wrong Michelle speaks of is the incestuous relationship between her and Jordan.

When landscape artist Bow Fox comes to stay at the caravan park he befriends 15-year-old Oliver Willow, preying on the bookish boy’s need for friends in order to satisfy his curiosity about the secretive Willow family.

As Bow Fox’s intrigue and meddling in the family’s affairs becomes more threatening the normally robust loyalty amongst the Willow children unravels. They are ruthless in their methods of stopping the interfering “outsider” from divulging family secrets but their actions have shocking consequences.

Hartnett has many strengths as a writer, not least of all her ability to provide her stories, and ultimately her readers, with a complex subtext. On the surface, Sleeping Dogs is a disturbing story of incest and extreme violence in a dysfunctional family. But beneath these standout themes, Hartnett also provides a credible account of how and why family loyalties align the way they do. In the process she gives her readers much to think about in relation to the way some families justify or tolerate domestic violence.

Hartnett shows admirable restraint in the way she handles confronting themes in Sleeping Dogs. Her portrayal of the incestuous relationship between Michelle and Jordan is gently interwoven throughout the narrative without the need for gratuitous explicitness, yet she still manages to closely examine the affect of this relationship on individual characters.

Where young adult literature can’t afford to be weak is in characterisation. If a writer produces clichéd characters they only reconfirm stereotypes and fail to challenge readers to look beyond those within their social groups. Hartnett can’t be criticised for this in Sleeping Dogs. In exploring the complexities of the Willow family from multiple viewpoints – from mad mother to self-serving Michelle to the patriarchal dominance of Griffin and the meddling outsider Bow Fox – she offers readers a diverse cast of characters. In this way she calls on her readers to consider the multifarious and often conflicting motivations that makes individuals act.

Many of the characters in Sonya Hartnett’s young adult novels live outside acceptable human boundaries and none more so than in Sleeping Dogs. But Hartnett makes no apology for tackling hard-hitting themes in her writing, despite criticisms from some quarters for doing so. She claims her target readership is thoughtful teenagers capable of looking at the world closely. In refusing to be censored, Hartnett offers her readers the truth regardless of how dark that truth might be. Sleeping Dogs is a confronting novel but Hartnett handles its themes of incest, family violence and the consequences of misguided family loyalties with sensitivity.