1884 Dog and Boy
Boy in the Blue Hammock
By Darren Groth
Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2022
$22.95 / 9780889714267
Reviewed by Jeff Stychin
If you’ve ever walked alone at sunset to a summit view of the place you reside and reminisced about your travels and experiences, imagine adding an ethereal mist with shimmering silvers and golds to the scene. The presence of this mist envelops your person, lifts your spirit, and brings you peace and calm in an otherwise muted sepia landscape. Reading Darren Groth’s terrific novel created this emotional state for me.
A Vancouver citizen originally hailing from Australia, Groth is a wonderfully unique and striking storyteller. He’s written numerous novels, including Kindling, Are You Seeing Me?, and Munro vs. the Coyote. The novel in question today was released about a year ago and is easily as engrossing, tumultuous, and endearing as any of the series you binge-watch on weekends.
This novel tells the story of Boy (Kasper) and his Dog (Tao), who must fight through a city uprooted and torn apart, venturing into the hazardous unknown toward salvation. It’s not a new story; neither is it one all that far from reality. But there is something imbued in Groth’s pages that moves you. I believe it lies in his use of phrasing, religious motifs, and rich, detailed expression.
In the novel’s early pages, there’s a phrase I thought was just beautifully written: “fear has a shelf life.” It’s part of an internal dialogue of Kasper’s mother before the world fell apart—and before the characters’ lives became uncertain as they faced a reality they never thought possible. She is sharing her confidence that Kasper will grow up to take care of himself and be alright if both his parents and sister aren’t around. This concise ending to her thought impressed me.
There is another another endearing quality throughout this novel. That’s the dialogue and anthropomorphic nature of Tao. “He knows absconder energy”: is that not such a succinct line? It really cuts deep when it appears in the midst of Tao’s struggle to follow his duty to look after Kasper and finish the rescue mission.
Shortly after the scene of Tao finding Kasper and the comrades leaving together, the duo encounter a stranger with a tattoo on a portion of her shaved head: “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy. Job 8:21.” The script is jarring. It comes out of absolutely nowhere considering that in this crisis-surveying section of the novel, the pals are wandering hopelessly towards a safer destination that might not exist. Though disorienting it’s profoundly lovely. I’m not exactly sure about its placement, but it might illustrate the emotional perseverance of this family and the love they share.
There’s another scene that mirrors the previous one: “The quote on the sign once read, ‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34.’ It is riddled with bullet holes, now as unreadable as the minds that considered it target practice.” I wonder if there’s a loss of faith happening internally to the characters here or if this passage is another reminder that hope is not lost. Characters are questioning everything—hopes, dreams, faith—so maybe Groth points here to the value of faith.
Another highlight is the imaginative and descriptive nature of Groth’s work. Groth impresses with characters, their plights and motivations, and what they see and feel. Consider these passages:
“In the world beyond Tao’s comprehension, a beautiful tomorrow was gunned down. One minute it was soaring, climbing ever higher into the sky, prompting the grounded to gaze in wonder; the next it was plummeting to earth, mortally wounded by the commander-in-chief, a hunter seeking nothing more than the prize.”
“He is ready, as he was thirty hours ago laying at the foot of the masters’ bed. He bears no ill will toward Boy—their time together has knotted them in a way that won’t be undone by their imminent demise. In fact, he feels something akin to love.”
I feel that these excerpts help highlight how incredibly vivid the characters of this book are, especially Tao. Along with his captivating characters, Groth excels at world-building. If you enjoy films or fiction that describes a journey in search of safety and solace in an otherwise tumultuous landscape, then look no further. Boy in the Blue Hammock may change your love for one another, for your neighbours, your friends, and even yourself.
Jeffrey Stychin has felt like a man out of time and in the wrong place ever since he noticed the town he grew up in, in the BC interior. He studied verse and poetry through music and art. He began writing as a means of catharsis and as a way to communicate with himself and others. A Vancouver barber by day, a poet by night, he currently resides with his thoughts and dreams in a quiet place full of trees. Editor’s note: Jeffrey Stychin has also reviewed books by Earle Peach, Sonja Ahlers, Cole Pauls, Jeremy Stewart, and Brodie Ramin for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster