Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy is a full, visceral, incredible novel. The story of a child raised by animals is a classic one but this one is told with such vividness and vicious detail that it transforms the narrative into a version for our contemporary times. This is how it would be, and this is the society that looks away while it happens.
A four-year-old boy wakes to find no-one home. Romochka’s mother disappeared some days ago, his uncle never returns. His apartment is empty, the whole building is empty. It is winter in Moscow, Romockha is cold and hungry and completely alone. In desperation and almost physically paralysed by fear, he goes out looking for help and finds Mamochka and her dog clan. Rapidly, necessarily, Romochka forgets his past life and becomes one of the wild pack. He bonds to his lifeline, and grows with them.
“He remembered his mother, too: dreamily, but without pain or discomfort. Her phrases, her perfume-and-sweat small, were fixed memories rarely touched, as distant as the stars. He had dreamed that faintly coloured, faintly odorous world – then woken up to live here in the rich smelly darkness and in the rub of hair, claws and teeth.”
There is an innocence to Romocka’s development and narrative. There is no one to hold him back when he hurts others, and at the same time no one to hold him back when he experiences pure joy and elation and power. This makes him an uncomfortable lead, a young child, a dangerous boy, and perhaps a purer human.
“He filled his invisible body and although nothing about him had changed, in this darkness he felt enlarged. Warm bodies clambered over him, burrowed around him. He grabbed hold of one and tucked it in to his chest. The puppy whined and wriggled, but he held on harder and it stopped struggling. Its rapid heartbeat settled and he smelled its milk-and-leather breath.”
It is interesting that this unfettered small human is more animal than person.
There is something in Hornung’s style that is also unsettling. There is a vividness and viciousness in her writing. Sparing us nothing, the details that are included are important and unsettling: Romochka’s teeth tearing into freshly-dead peacock, stroking Mamocka’s belly as he suckles at her teat, the heat and breath of one of his clan as they lick his wounds clean. The sensory is so, so important – and a significant point of difference between Romochka and his adoptive family as he grows – but it is not comfortable. It is necessary: these are things that keep Romochka alive, outside of the structures of society that would have left him to die.
It’s uncomfortable also because of the starkness with which our society’s morality is displayed. Romochka would have died without a wild urban dog clan; the state’s involvement with street kids is rounding them up using the military and putting them in experimental institutions; people accept homelessness as a part of life in the city, and may even donate some coins, as long as they don’t get too close. Romochka’s story only exists because of the moral blackhole that exists around poverty and homelessness.
So I don’t know if I enjoyed Dog Boy, or if I would recommend it. It is an incredible story though; there is some beauty in here, and hope, but also a lot of suffering and discomfort. But this is fair artistically – this type of tale in this place needs to be real and whole and to give us any less would be an injustice to Hornung’s skill and Romochka’s story.