The fundamental sadness of humans

The last family in england book coverThe Last Family in England
by Matt Haig

I’ve put off reviewing this novel for a while now. I love Matt Haig and this is a lovely book, but I feel like maybe the author – who has spoken publicly about his anxiety and depression – was in a bad place when he wrote it. It’s sad and bleak and I think the ending broke me a little bit.

It’s the story of the Hunters – an ordinary family in an ordinary British suburb, but who are on the brink of disintegrating. And it’s narrated by Prince, the family dog, which sounds like a terrible idea but actually works really well.

Adam and Kate are happily married, their children Hal and Charlotte are typical teenagers. On the surface. But the marriage is brittle. Hal is fragile. Charlotte is always angry. One small spark is all it will take to destroy them.

“Until that day Adam had treated his appearance with canine practicality. Unlike his son, who could hold conversations with his reflection for hours at a time, Adam only looked in the mirror as a matter of duty…Yet here he was, analysing every detail, his mouth dropping in surprise at each new discovery…Nose hairs, creased forehead, crinkled eyes, blotched cheeks, saggy neck, and other irreparable damage…His pink, hairless body could hide nothing away…I thought about the fundamental sadness of humans. Their inability to understand their own nature, their reluctance to grow old, their concentration on one sense at the expense of all others.”

Every morning and evening Adam takes Prince to the local park, where he interacts with his dog friends. Prince is a labrador, and prides himself that labradors are the most faithful dog breed. His mentor is Henry, an older labrador who has been teaching Prince about the Labrador Pact – a series of aphorisms to live by. Prince truly believes that he can save his family if he can just learn to wag his tail at the correct speed for any given situation. But he’s going to need to take more extreme action than that to help them. Maybe he should heed the words of Falstaff, a springer spaniel who delights in trying to lead him astray.

There’s not only a melancholy air to the whole story, but also a sense of imminent danger. A local girl has gone missing. A stray dog has been found torn to pieces. The safety and beauty of the suburb is only a surface, a veneer, and can’t be trusted. Prince wants so badly to believe the best, to have hope for everyone he loves, but between his words the reality is not looking bright.

“I used to dig holes. When I was younger…When there was soft black earth you could dig down until you reached the smells you never found above ground. Time-travel smells…But Adam, who liked looking up…wanted me on the surface, where he could see me. I used to fantasise that one day, though, when he was not looking, I would dig and dig and dig until I could finally understand. Until all the smells made sense. Because if you got far enough down, I thought, you would be able to smell the truth.”

It’s all very sad and strange and a little cheesy. The reason it works is that Haig combines a wry sense of humour with real insight into how people think and act. Every character feels truly drawn. People are complicated and have to deal with bad or sad things in their lives. Haig truly gets under the skin in a way that’s surprisingly rare.

I do recommend this book but maybe don’t read it if you’re feeling down.

Published 2005 by Vintage.

Source: Christmas present from my Dad.