The Power of the Dog – Thomas Savage

As with many rediscovered novels which find a new and enthusiastic readership, it’s hard to see now why The Power of the Dog hasn’t remained in print since its initial publication in 1967. It contains everything a classic American novel needs – taut family tensions heightened by physical isolation, a study of the type of masculinity left over from the previous century’s struggles, and outsiders attempting to find a place to live quietly. At the heart of this story is a pair of brothers, the domineering Phil and his quieter sibling George. When George takes it upon himself to marry a young widow, Phil’s control over the ranch is challenged and he decides to make life difficult for the new bride.

Phil is quite possibly one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve come across in a novel – and that’s quite a statement, I know. His certainty that he is always right, his instinctive need to remind others of their ‘place’, his particular brand of aggressive masculinity – all combine to create a cruelty which drive forward the plot and leave you rooting for Rose and Peter, her quiet bookish son. This is a masterclass in how to write about psychological power and control.

‘… she sat down and began to play; but as she listened critically to her own playing, she heard another sound, that of Phil’s banjo, and knew suddenly that when she practised, he played, too. She paused, staring at the keys. The plunk-plunk of the banjo stopped, too. Cautiously, she began again. The banjo again. She paused, banjo paused. Now she knew a crawling sensation up the back of her neck: she was playing precisely what she was playing – and better. ‘

You may well have seen the new film already – I’ve got a very clear sense of Phil in my mind and it’ll be interesting to see how it marries with Benedick Cumberbatch’s portrayal – but I’d certainly recommend the novel. Make sure you read Annie Proulx’s afterword too – there’s fascinating biographical information there. I’m going to get hold of Savage’s other novels now; he’s clearly a major American writer who deserves more recognition.

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