In 1999, Suzanne Berne won the Orange Prize with A Crime in the Neighbourhood. The Orange Prize has been reborn as the Baileys’ Prize and Berne is once again on the list with a different crime in another neighborhood. Littlefield, according to a (fictional) survey, is the sixth best place to live in America. Neighbours talk to each other, there’s a local coffee shop where the doughnuts are made on the premises (although the coffee’s not so good), and Dr Clarice Watkins, sociologist, moves in to study what it is that make people content.
However, someone is poisoning the town’s dogs. Littlefield is a far more complicated proposition than Dr Watkins bargained for, and contentment proves difficult to define. It’s tempting to review The Dogs of Littlefield as a suburban whodunit – the dead dogs, and the reactions of their owners, are the markers that Berne uses to take the reader through the plot. But the novel is not about who is poisoning the dogs. It’s about the depths that swirl under lives that seem enviable on the surface. It’s about relationships – one of the main protagonists, Margaret, is struggling with her husband’s increasing emotional distance; her teenage daughter, Julia, is unhappy and will not communicate with her, and Margaret isn’t sure whether or not she’s attracted to the divorced novelist but sleeps with him anyway. In Littlefield, as everywhere else, people are messy and resist both categorization and explanation.
This results in a novel that is both excruciatingly comic and surprisingly dark. The solution to the dog poisoning is almost casually tossed in towards the end of the novel; it really isn’t the point. The point is the exploration of the undercurrents of small town suburban lives, and if the reader laughs at the baked ham studded with pineapple and maraschino cherries, or at the observations of the town meeting, called to discuss a change in the rules regarding dogs in the park, then it’s a bitter laugh, with more than a hint of self-recognition.
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