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Running Dogs

June 12, 2012

Cover by artist Florence Boyd, the author’s cousin

Ruby J Murray, Running Dogs, 2012

At last! An Australian has written an evocative, gripping novel set in contemporary Indonesia!

The wealthy Jordan siblings – Petra, Isaak and Paul – are skilled at manipulation: “If [the Jordans] wanted Raymond to speak, they set it up so that he spoke. If they wanted Isaak’s girlfriend to laugh at one of their jokes then she laughed, and when they decided she should stop, she stopped, the sound dying in her mouth.”

Running Dogs is the story of how the Jordans got to be like this, and the price they pay. Their foil is Diana, who shared an apartment with Petra during their university days in Melbourne, and whose life has been empty in the six years since Petra suddenly returned home. The novel starts with Diana taking a job at an ineffective NGO in Jakarta without acknowledging that her real motive is to meet Petra again.

Chapters set in the present in Diana’s point of view alternate with chapters in Petra’s or Isaak’s viewpoints as children, set in the year between the 1997 Indonesian election campaign and the 1998 fall of Suharto. Murray takes us right into the children’s vulnerability and desperation as they try to please their volatile father, the running dog for a powerful tycoon, and escape from a sadistic bully at school. The characterisation and action make the childhood chapters the most engrossing. Those set in the present are almost a relief, being, at least initially, more about the bland Diana succumbing to the whims of the now apparently hardened Jordans. The structure advances the story in a well-paced way so that the conclusion feels exactly right for what has gone before.

Murray focuses on telling the story, but “issues” poke their way in because they affect the lives of the characters: corruption, environmental destruction, exploitation, fundamentalism, NGOs and aid. The issues are illustrated through character and story rather than by explanation.

Murray is able to evoke what it is like to be in the country, especially in Jakarta, by using sensory language and personal reactions, particularly those of Diana and the child Petra. I happened to be in Indonesia during the 1997 election campaign and despaired when I tried to write about it, unable to capture the roaring intensity of being in the midst of it. Murray comes close, despite, I assume, not having been there, when Petra feels the electricity in the air that “makes her nervous and happy at the same time”.

I puzzled over Diana. Is she insipid because Murray, a first-time novelist, was unable to create an engaging character, or because she wanted a cipher for the the Jordans to bounce off? The story couldn’t have been told without her, but I think it may have worked better if we could like (or even dislike) her more. In the childhood chapters, our sympathy is with the children who are being persecuted. In the chapters set in the present, with the Jordans now more like persecutors, it would have helped to be able to identify more strongly with Diana.

That’s a minor quibble. It’s a terrific book.

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