Based on the rave reviews emblazened on the cover of “Southern Cross the Dog” describing its “powerful” features and “unforgettable characters” I had high hopes for this novel based in interwar America . I was intrigued to look beyond the slightly confusing title and determined not to follow the age old proverb of judging a book by its cover. However I fear I may have been right on this occasion to go on my initial opinion and must admit that, had I not been reviewing this novel for the secret book club, I would not have continued to the end.
The novel, Bill Chengs debut work, has a sense of someone trying to impress the literary world with his skills rather than create any significant story. The prologue and opening chapters throw the reader into a world in which they are forced to create their own outline of the story, joining together clues of a fractured family, young boy and previous tradgedy before they can continue on. Although this sense of disorientation, which continues throughout the novel, is a good reflection of the feelings of Chengs characters whose worlds are changed irreversibly by the Great flood of 1927 which opens the book, it does make for confusing reading as a whole. Indeed as the novel continued on this lack of clarity became nothing but frustrating as I was unable to grasp the direction of the novel or its message. Storylines appeared to end with no real explanation and characters moved in and out of view with no evidence of their role in the story as a whole.
Personally, by the end of the novel I was left wondering wether this lack of structure was a result of Chengs lack of knowledge on his subject rather than an attempt at pathetic fallacy. Cheng is a young Asian American writer, the suggestion that his knowledge of the African- American 1920’s is limited is not beyond belief. Disappointingly this lack of coherence within the novel is only increased by the use of language. The reader is subject to description of multiple injuries, rapes and deaths and yet these seem more mechanic than empathetic in their descriptions. With not one of the main characters, Robert the young boy whose story we follow most closely, Dora and GD childhood friends whose lives remain linked or pianist Ellis who wears the devil around his neck, drawing much of my sympathy. Nevertheless some points of the novel do move past this harsh exterior. The story of Roberts parents confined to just a few chapters is perhaps the most moving part of the entire novel. Personally I found Chengs description of this family tragedy (a common theme at this time) one of the most moving I have read on this subject.
Additionally the section set in a brothel where Robert grows up was both moving and endearing. Perhaps suggesting Chengs strength lies in short extracts of poetic work rather than the complex and epic story this book has taken on. Unfortunately I found much of this book unpleasant and unrelenting, as barren in some parts as the landscape it is set in. If you are looking for a modern literary work I’m sure this really is the masterpiece it is described as, but if like me you wanted a good read, sadly this is probably not the novel for you.