The Friend by Sigrid Nunez — an intensely pleasurable read

The Sunday Times
By Lucy Atkins

This touching, clever novel about dogs and bonding puts its author on the map.

The unnamed narrator of this delicious American novel, which won the 2018 National Book award, is grieving. She is addressing her account of loss to “you”, her narcissistic best friend, an ex-writing professor, dedicated womaniser and one-time Nobel Prize contender who has just committed suicide.

The narrator is an author and professor, too, and as she recalls their friendship, she thinks not just about her lost friend, but about the craft of writing, the viperish literary world, the crippling political correctness of today’s writing students — and about dogs. She thinks a lot about dogs because, in a vulnerable moment, she agrees to take in her dead friend’s hound, Apollo.

This arrangement has drawbacks: she is a cat person, living in a tiny rent-controlled Manhattan apartment with a no-dog policy, and Apollo is a 180lb Great Dane. Since it is impossible to smuggle the gargantuan beast in and out of the building, she soon faces eviction. But she cannot get rid of him because, in the muddle of grief, she is saving not just the dog but her dead friend.

Apollo is also miserable and bereaved, fixing her with sad, “strikingly human” eyes that she admits “remind me of yours”. Soon, he has taken over her bed, stretching the length of the mattress, waking her with a “man-sized” paw on the chest. He seems comforted when she reads aloud and one day even lays a copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard at her feet. Tentatively, they begin to bond.

It is a cute story: grieving woman saves dead friend’s dog, who then saves her. Witty, uplifting novels about kindness and survival also happen to be having a bit of a moment. “Up Lit” was last year’s most talked about publishing trend thanks to mega-hits such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. However, to sweep Nunez into a smug commercial (and suspiciously sexist) category would be woefully reductive. The Friend is a more clever and complex book. Take the Knausgaard: it is no accident that Apollo clamps his jaws around a genre-busting Norwegian memoirist, since Nunez also playfully defies the reader to pin her down.

It is almost impossible not to see Nunez and her narrator as the same person: both are writing professors in their sixties and single Manhattan cat lovers with relatively low-profile careers. Nunez has written six previous novels but this is the first to grab attention (and the first published in the UK). But of course this is a pretend memoir, a fictional account of a fictional death. Or is it? At one point we are asked to consider the possibility that our narrator’s grief is fictional, that her friend, “you”, survived, and that she is writing a book in which she only imagines his death. Nunez is playing with us, taunting us to separate truth from fiction, writer from reader, character from author. It is “curious how the act of writing leads to confession”, our narrator remarks, adding: “Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.”

At first, I wondered if I might be loving this book because I am a writer and there is tons about writing: bon mots from Georges Simenon, Virginia Woolf and JM Coetzee; anecdotes, tips, quotes. Then dogs start to take over, and I began to wonder if I was loving it because I’m a dog person. The answer to both is no. This is an intensely pleasurable read because it is so accessible, capacious and clever. It is about grief and loneliness, out-of-control emotions, vulnerability, the fear of ageing and also about writing and reading.

The Friend has rightly put Nunez on the literary map. The best news is there are those six previous novels to catch up on.

Sigrid Nunez