Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Many critics consider Shakespeare’s Dog to be one of the finest pieces of fiction by Leon Rooke, who has written eight volumes of stories and three other novels—Vault (1973), Fat Woman (1980), and The Magician In Love (1981). Shakespeare’s Dog won for him the Canadian Governor-General’s Award in 1985. He was one of the finalists for this prize for Fat Woman in 1981, the year he won the Canada-Australia Prize.

Rooke’s first collection of short stories, Last One Home Sleeps In the Yellow Bed (1968), employs traditional plots and narrative techniques. Since then, he has experimented with various new devices, playing down cause-and-effect narrative and emphasizing an astonishing range of voices, tones, and points of view. His narrators, for whom he shows unhesitating sympathy, include neurotics, foreigners, magicians, psychopaths, and, in Shakespeare’s Dog, an idiosyncratic dog, the most unusual of them all. He experiments with language, trying to capture the nuances and cadences of the different narrators’ voices.

Rooke’s fiction covers a wide spectrum of human experiences, but he tends to treat recurringly the inability of people, even those in intimate contact, to know one another really well, as indicated in his analysis of Will and Anne’s relationship. He is also absorbed with examining the nature of art and the artist, as in his portrayal of Will and Hookcr as different components of the writer’s psyche. Rooke’s fictional world combines the bizarre with the normal, the real with the supernatural, the vulgar with the polished, the comic with the tragic.

Shakespeare’s Dog has done much for Leon Rooke’s burgeoning reputation as a writer of fiction. (He has also written four plays.) One or two critics found the work gimmicky but most gave it a fine reception, such as the reviewer who praised it as “a sculpted novel with a largeness of imagination and wit, a book for literate dogs like ourselves.”