Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed: 'Life in the city makes you sit up and beg', book review

Rosoff’s previous fiction accommodates a remarkable variety of types, including a love story under the shadow of nuclear calamity and a missing person drama

Benjamin Evans
Sunday 21 February 2016 17:40
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Meg Rosoff, it may be surmised, is something of a dog nut. Her latest novel, Jonathan Unleashed, gives starring roles to an endearing pair – Sissy the spaniel and a border collie named Dante – who’ve come to live with the “pale and nervy” art school graduate Jonathan Trefoil in his Manhattan apartment.

Looking after his brother’s dogs is not particularly convenient because Jonathan is already struggling with the trappings of adulthood: his junior copywriting job at the spuriously hip marketing company, Comrade, is inanely repetitive, his overbearing Midwestern girlfriend, Julie, doesn’t click with his circle of eccentric friends and his tenancy might be terminated at any time if the landlord’s friend gets out of jail.

The dogs soon become “a ready made family, minus the rage” and Rosoff revels in all the tender nuances of the interspecies bond. More than mere furry pals, Dante and Sissy provide Jonathan with a relationship litmus test and philosophical conundrum rolled into one.

Finding pretexts to take them to the attractive vet, Dr Clare, Jonathan is worried that living in an asphalt jungle is making the dogs despondent, although she clearly suspects he is prone to what psychiatrists call projection. It is Jonathan’s own life that is turning into dog mess and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

Like the pets in question, Rosoff’s previous fiction accommodates a remarkable variety of types, including a love story under the shadow of nuclear calamity and a missing person drama led by a Sherlockian teenage girl.

After a prize-winning streak in young adult fiction, Jonathan Unleashed marks a swerve into novels for grown-ups, but her idiosyncratic storytelling chutzpah remains a constant.

It must be admitted that the elaborate orchestration of a longer comic plot puts her skills under mild strain. Whilst the abrasive Julie manoeuvres him into an expenses-paid wedding to be covered by her magazine employer “Bridal-360”, Jonathan’s heartstrings get tangled up with other romantic contenders: a gorgeous French baker, an androgynous colleague, the aforementioned British vet.

Their rapport with Dante and Sissy provides an early indicator of their suitability, although it takes a long time for the penny to drop with their obtuse guardian, whose spineless procrastination feels overstretched.

However, that scarcely matters when this shaggy dog story is told with such vibrant and subversive wit. With his ineptness at flirtation and his creativity squashed by a mundane desk job, Jonathan initially comes off like a “chick lit” heroine in male garb.

Yet perhaps Rosoff is making the point that such haplessness is not really tied to gender, more the result of being too weird and imaginative to fit in ready-made boxes.

It is also a brilliantly detailed snapshot of – to tweak the title of one of her finest novels – how we live now. Beset by volatile superiors and precarious domestic arrangements, the metropolis is outrageously brutal to young people still figuring it out.

Yet Rosoff also depicts the city streets around Jonathan teeming with possibilities − smiling women, delicious food aromas, awe-inspiring panoramas – and so ensures that an irrepressible comic optimism never feels too far away. eg Rosoff’s credo The New Review.

Jonathan Unleashed, by Meg Rosoff. Bloomsbury £14.99

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