Eva Hornung, “Dog Boy” (2009)


I first did some reading about children raised by animals when I was researching for an article I wrote years ago on David Malouf’s beautiful novella An Imaginary Life. Click the image on the left to see more evidence of our fascination with the idea, but above all go to the amazingly comprehensive FeralChildren.com. There’s a note at the end of that site that bears repeating: “No matter how fascinating, scientifically interesting or even romantic some of these stories seem, it isn’t much fun to be a feral child, wolf boy or wild girl. We shouldn’t forget that all these children have been abandoned, neglected or even cruelly abused: some of the stories are quite harrowing.”

This story closely parallels Dog Boy.

Australian writer Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy is the latest contribution on the fictional side to the tradition. It is interesting to see the comments on Library Thing – six at the moment. Five agree with me, rating it ss10  . The first one says (one star): “I just couldn’t finish this book. It is very well written but I found the subject matter too bleak and disturbing. I cheated a bit when I knew I wasn’t going to finish the book. I read the last page… then I really was glad that I didn’t finish it. Real Life can be so harsh at times. I don’t need to depress myself by reading this sort of fiction.”

479019 I sympathise to a degree. The book is, in my view, about far more than the nitty gritty of just how a dog-human “family” might work – though it is brilliant and inventive in that. It is also a picture of post-Communist Moscow that makes Blade Runner look like a Sunday School picnic. HSC students may find in it the ultimate “Belonging” text!

There are two great interviews online about the novel:

From the second:

Ramona Koval: Our myths, legends and occasional newspaper stories are full of humans who are removed from civilisation and brought up in the wild. There was Romulus and Remus as the founders of Rome, the story of Mowgli, Tarzan of the Apes, Casper Hauser as a boy isolated from human society, and we could go on. And it’s this theme that writer Eva Hornung has approached in her new book Dog Boy. It’s her new book with her new name, it’s a reversion to her maiden name from Eva Sallis after a marriage break-up. As Sallis, her first novel Hiam won the Australian Vogel Literary Award in 1997 and the Nita May Dobbie Award in 1999. Her novel The Marsh Birds was awarded with prizes as well. Eva Hornung is with me in the studio. Welcome to The Book Show.

Eva Hornung: Thank you.

Ramona Koval: This mystery about feral children…it’s a compelling story, isn’t it, we are drawn to it.

Eva Hornung: We are. I think feral children have always thrown up a question about the divide between humans and other species. In fact wherever feral children have been studied or written about, it’s been that question: what makes us human? What part of us is animal, what part of us is above or beyond the animal? And so the fascination with feral children is really seeing a child stripped of human nurture and what the result is. Even experiments have been undertaken…I can’t quite remember the exact context, but putting children in a situation where they have no nurture and trying to see what the result is. Who are they without language? Who are we without language? Who are we without all of the gifts that a compassionate mother might give us? And so I think the fascination isn’t just because feral children are a good story. I think the fascination is a kind of discomfort and unease about who we are.

Ramona Koval: So you’ve set this novel in Moscow, why Moscow?

Eva Hornung: On the bare setting of it, I needed cold, I needed really, really freezing cold. When I first began imagining the story, which was catalysed by a story of a boy living with dogs in Moscow, I really was gripped by that idea, of cold, twilight, isolation, disintegration…


Dog Boy is a wonderful novel, a tour de force, even. Yet I must confess to feeling a little resentful when Romoch ka’s life with the pack is interrupted, first by the militzia and then by a pair of good-hearted but meddlesome educational psychologists. The world that Hornung creates around Romochka is one of terrible cold and hunger, where physical harm and death are constant dangers, yet it is also immensely rich in sensual detail – and it is very hard to let it go. And, while it would be wrong to give away the conclusion of this narrative (in which a creeping sense of dread is never far away), it has to be said that the closing pages are disturbingly ambiguous. At its painful end, where some fundamental questions about trust and manipulation are left unresolved,Dog Boy emerges as a novel that is not only very moving, but also ­morally and philosophically urgent in its core concerns.” – The Guardian.

“If you’re thinking a book called ‘Dog Boy’ includes cute puppies or adorable infants dressed in Anne Geddes-style costumes, then you’d be way off the mark.

“Hornung’s Dog Boy is a confronting work that digs (I’m trying hard to avoid puns here…) into broader social issues around homelessness and the fate of the less fortunate in post-modern, post-industrial societies. Set in a dreary contemporary Moscow, Dog Boy extends the ‘Romulus and Remus’ fable, and intertwines it with more contemporary efforts like Paul Auster’s ‘Timbuktu’ (told from a dog’s point of view) and Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ (Martel gets to add his praise of Dog Boy on the front and back covers).

“Poor, abandoned, starving Romochka, a four year-old boy, wanders the desolate streets of Moscow and soon (in fact, by page 20) finds comfort in suckling at the teat of mongrel stray Mamochka. So far, so bleak. Hornung then amps things up (or down) and we descend into the filthy world of roaming packs of street dogs. Romochka fights for his very survival, and that of his fellow pack members, including White Sister and Golden Bitch. He is constantly wary of attacks from other dogs and capture by roaming militzia (Romochka’s few recollections of his mother include the warning ‘Don’t go near people’ which he takes too literally). Hornung’s highly descriptive prose is unrelenting; the scene of the young boy capturing and eating a rat is stomach churning. This kind of literature is intense and demanding upon the reader – and like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, I can’t say it makes for ‘enjoyable’ reading. But Dog Boy is a confident, thought-provoking work.” – The Independent Weekly.


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