RAGGED by Christopher Irvin (BOOK REVIEW)
Thank you @titanbooks for my review copy!
Christopher Irvin is the author of the novel Ragged. His debut collection, Safe Inside the Violence, was a finalist for the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He lives in Boston, MA with his wife and two sons.
“Cal would deem himself a proud mutt, but when you’re head of the sole family of dogs to make their home in the Woods, you become the dog”
Irvin’s Novel Ragged, came out in April 2022 and can only be described as something achingly familiar, whilst being so entirely bizarre I was shocked to have come across such a novel. Whilst authors such as James Brogden and David Quantick have noted Irvin’s work as something ‘darkly whimsical,’ or ‘bloody’ and related to ‘Watership Down,’ I want to focus on the moments of comedy, fear, and uncannily human elements that make this novel what it is; namely an intimately enjoyable, albeit slightly predictable read.
I do not say this as a negative thing though, so do not take it as such. The moments of predictability add some much needed, and might I say refreshing, respite, and lightness to what can actually be read as an exceedingly traumatic and upsetting story. If one imagined that the characters were in fact not fantastical Uplifted woodland creatures who live in a bizarre middle-ages style town in the depths of a nameless forest, then you might consider this a terrible tale of disease, death, and irremovable grief. However, as the pages are filled with adorably (and hilariously) written woodland creatures, the wretched aspects of the story are whitewashed.
‘The Woods has hosted the renown
As our forefathers have told;
But never ‘phibianm reptile, or fish
Compared with a Most regal Toad!’
The woodland community is the home of many animals; badgers, foxes, pigs, dogs, and even a talking fish in the river comically called Gil (to name a few). Our protagonist’s name is Cal, a dog of unknown parentage, it is said that ‘the ancestry of his mixed breed had been lost to time, but if you’d been fortunate to be in the company of a variety of the Canis Lupus Familiaris, you might think his facial features resembled that of a beagle.’ We quickly learn that Cal and his wife Winifred have lived in the woods since they met, and together with their two pups they have lived quite contently in the Wood. It is apparent that Cal has a mysterious, violent, and even ominous past which seems to have affected the family somewhat, as some of the other animals do not take kindly to the family of dogs, but regardless of Cal’s past, they have lived as harmoniously as one might wish. That is until the sickness came…
‘Every squirrel, possum, and rat for miles came to tell me about Cal the honourable family dog, fighting back against the scavengers and smugglers. A knife in the back makes for furious gossip’
The narrative follows several different voices, predominantly Cal, but also various other woodland creatures or ‘vermin,’ such as a Racoon, who live at the rubbish heap – which we soon discover is Cals old home. As rumours of sickness spread from animal to animal, panic and fear begins infecting the communities, as the rules around sickness are clear – if you are diseased, you are not welcome anymore, and will be promptly expelled from the community.
Upon Winifred’s death in the first few pages of the novel, Cal tries to quietly grieve without drawing attention to his family, but with winter coming, food running low, and no delivery at the locals shop for a while… everyone is getting hostile, as well as hungry.
Part of me wanted to dissect the reason for the novels title – Ragged? A term that may refer to something battered, dilapidated, fragmented, worn out or out-right shabby. I failed to figure out Irvin’s agenda with this title. Contextually I must have missed something? I felt Ravenous would not have done the story justice either, even with the rabbies-esc disease that seems to infect and destroy our characters and their neighbour.
Irvin’s novel was everything you want from a phantasmagorically constructed narrative. There are moments where what was happening was a bit ambiguous and the ending might have been leaning slightly into the realms of predictability… but the gory, bloody, Watership Down – esc vibe is addictive- and I am here for it. I hope Irvin’s novel is enjoyed by many, and appreciated for what it is. A strange, but all-round human text.