The Tragic Realities of the Power of the Dog

“The Power of the Dog” by Tracy Chevalier is not a movie. It is, however, a magnificently wrought novel. It is based on the complex relationship between two lifelong friends and their young daughter. The book is set in contemporary Boston, where three years ago the three — a father, daughter and son — were mysteriously murdered.

The novel chronicles the years preceding their deaths, when, working together, the three were a formidable commando team. Chevalier achieves a magic, a mesmerizing symphony of plot and character, set against the dark, mountainous landscape of New England, where its past is forever trapped by “the ever-present fear” of a novel that, we are informed, “is not filled with birth certificates.”

Karen, Carol and Hunter — we will assume at the outset that the names have been changed — have returned from a months-long mission, hunting an eminent scientist for whom one has a blood bond. Under the guise of a medication-prescribing acquaintance, Karen begins a dirty little secret affair with Hunter, a reckless, expletive-spewing killer who most definitely is a gentleman.

Carol, an overworked travel agent, despairs of finding the man she wants to settle down with, having been sidelined repeatedly by the great loss she suffered in the year preceding the death of her husband. And Hunter is tired of his cushy, medical-type life, frustrated that “his friends have forgotten him and he can’t keep up.”

The three are a unit, and together they methodically apply their cleverness to a search that begins in secret, perhaps as part of a larger plan, in order to find a cure for Hunter’s illness.

What follows is an intense if occasionally disorienting yarn that is the only known major media success story of a writer whose name carries no more than a trickle of recognition. It was reported that 10 years ago the book had sold 750,000 copies, although perhaps as many as half a million. A brief excerpt was published in GQ, and ever since the story has been a hit on the Web. By all accounts, this is no little feat for a work of ethereal praise — “incorrigible,” “fearless,” “an apocalyptic labor of love” — that addresses, itself, the most frightening aspects of the human condition.

New England and the surrounding mountains here provide the mood and the great backdrop. Relish in the way Chevalier invokes “the dusky beauty of the St. John’s Forest, where the straight-line, bleached-snowtracked tundra hums with the sound of hand-thrustings.” It is a love letter to the region, which seems more like a lover than the deadly incantations of the killing fields that actually happened in the novel’s country.

The novel is not to be read this way, however. The small lines, tiny as they seem, build to a full-blown avalanche of words, and in doing so, they convey some of the immense power and powerlessness that the novel’s protagonists feel throughout their ordeal.

Above all, the book is able to suggest its anxieties about “observed nature” — the air, the water, the woods. What perfect tableau the scenery in all its fragility conjures, each minute event becoming more extraordinary. The novel does not strive for greatness, but neither does it betray its authorship. In giving, instead, the reader the small illusion of awe and beauty, Chevalier draws us into the intimacy of a memory, yet in which we are caught in the moment and left wondering what a great deal of work — actual and imagined — has gone into, almost to the point of absurdity.

The power of “The Power of the Dog” is its weird, glorious absurdity.

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