Keep an eye on this Canadian author, especially if you live in Toronto. His hugely successful novel Fifteen Dogs was such a pleasure to read and this one I liked even better! Fifteen Dogs, winner of the 2015 Giller Prize, recently made it onto the Canada Reads shortlist and one of the dogs in that story, a black poodle named Majnoun, makes a guest appearance in this book. And the setting is so recognizably Toronto: Liberty Village, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Parkdale, Rosedale, Queen St., King St. and various condos by the lakeshore, and more.
Inspired by Treasure Island, the premise of The Hidden Keys caught my attention immediately. A highly accomplished but strangely honourable thief, makes a promise to an aging heroin addict that he will help her solve a mysterious inheritance puzzle left by her wealthy father. Willow believes her Dad set the treasure hunt before he died, but her siblings do not. So Willow needs Tancred, her friend the thief, to steal the objects needed to gather the pieces and solve the puzzle. Of course the quest gets complicated, both by Tancred’s very good friend who is a police detective, and some thugs who are threatening to get in the way or worse, make off with the treasure. The novel kept my interest and is well paced, but also has a reflective side, raising questions about what it means to be faithful and good and whether money can ever really bring happiness. The book is a strange combination of elegant writing and funny adventure. Only in Canada, will you find a crime/mystery novel with a hugely polite and thoughtful thief at the centre of the story!!
Winner of the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize
“One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern.”
The opening scene has gods Hermes and Apollo sitting in a pub in Toronto, arguing about whether human consciousness brings happiness or not. A drunken wager ensues. The two agree to test their bet by giving human intelligence to animals. As they stumble onto the street, they conveniently come upon a veterinary clinic where fifteen dogs are spending the night for one reason or another. That night those hapless dogs are given a taste of humanity and will be observed for the rest of their lives to see if they will indeed be happier. The dogs have no idea why they suddenly feel changed and the reader enters into a clever philosophical exploration that asks as many questions as it answers.
On the surface this is a simple fable of the hounds and their newfound mix of dogness and humanity. It is a complex journey these canines embark on, some even enjoying the ability to speak and compose poetry. Interactions between humans and dogs are examined and there is philosophical pondering about the nature of creation and culture. “It was puzzling to be asked to ‘roll over’ after initiating a conversation about water.”
What I enjoyed most was noticing the changes wrought to animals who normally react simply to physical needs and basic instincts. Suddenly the dogs know empathy, choice, reason, problem solving, strategy, boredom, a sense of the passage of time, imagination, and improved communication. It almost felt like a reverse ‘Lord of the Flies.’ But are they now happy? Did it improve their lives? Is human intelligence a gift or no more than a useful plague?
My children will tell you that I’ve always said that dogs would be far less interesting if they could talk. And the best thing about a dog is that you can confide in them without the risk of your secrets going any further. Dogs are probably the most anthropomorphized creatures (next to cats) and a good relationship with a dog depends on understanding that dogs and people by their very nature act and react differently. The book reminded me of another where the dog has human intelligence and narrates the story, but in that case could not communicate it. I actually liked The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein better than this one, but both are entertaining and not only for dog lovers.