After a double serving of life-altering loss, BB and her dog Baby move back to BB’s appropriately-alliterated hometown of Balboa Bay. BB considers the consequences of merging one life with another, only to lose a chunk of self when the other person dies. In a moment of verge-side scavenging, BB is mistaken for a dog trainer, and accidentally finds a sense of community through acts of service, helping the dogs (and owners) of her increasingly gentrified coastal suburb.
At its core, Why We Are Here is an aftermath narrative that deals with the spacelessness of writing, and the non-specific location of world-shattering grief. To define this book by its most basic elements, however, seems gracelessly reductive.
Doyle’s intelligent autofiction reads with undiluted authenticity. In a novel set in a town that could be anywhere in Australia, each page presents new instances of life playing out in fiction, and fiction playing out in life. Doyle writes humorously, using colloquial language to make intelligent fun of serious topics with casual irreverence. The text itself is interspersed with black and white photographs, which augment the sense of place Doyle cultivates via relatable descriptions of semi-invented locations.
Moving from freedom, to lockdown, to the so-called “new normal”, BB’s context provides a perfect metaphor for the way grief can isolate people before the tentative re-entering of usual life can occur. Embodying the Australian pandemic experience without trying to second guess the long-term impacts, this book is very much in and of its time. And yet, the story never gets stuck with the narrow focus that so often forces topical narratives to spiral hopelessly inwards.
Beautifully linked with silent language, the author reveals a world of opposites: human/dog, dead/alive, free/restricted, city/suburban, here/gone, absence/embodiment, prison/beach. Drawing parallels between human conditioning and Pavlovian responses, Doyle explores different methods of communication, from dog-telegraphing, to emergency-grunts, to intentional acts of defiance.
Intertextual threads are woven non-obtrusively throughout the narrative, quoting everyone (well, not quite everyone) from Simone Weil to Cesar Millan. Semantically playful, Doyle engages with the words of humans who walked life’s paths before her, and consistently conjures the phrases her ghosts may have spoken, had they still been able to do so.
An addictive cast of characters grace BB’s reality, despite instances of self- and other-imposed isolation. Seductive Vera, unforgettable Franz, surprising Sabina, dependable Baby, BB’s late father and, of course, the painfully-absent Him, are all achingly real.
Why We Are Here is the funniest-saddest book about death you are likely to read this year. Observant, imaginative and vaguely allegorical, Doyle’s writing will resonate with dog-people, anyone familiar with the abyss known as grief, and everyone who has experienced their own personal aftermath.
Why We Are Here by Briohny Doyle
Publisher: Penguin, Vintage Australia
Pages: 288 pp
Publication Date: 27 June 2023