Ramochka is just four years old when his mother and uncle abandon him. After remaining hidden in a cupboard for days, fearful that they will return and scold him, he ventures outside to look for food and company. What he finds is a dog, who leads him safely through the city and into her home. Alongside her own pups, she cleans him, suckles him and makes him a part of her own family.
Like Ramochka, the reader is at first walking in the dark. Although dogs are by no means an unusual companion, the depth that Ramochka is immersed into the lives of this pack of wild dogs is so foreign, and at times uncomfortable to read. Hornung does an incredible job building this relationship from scratch, as we bear intimate witness to Ramochkas gradual transition to dog from human.
The narrative in this first half of the book is very closed and personal, as the readers vision is blinkered to see only what Ramochka sees and feels. When the narrative changes in part two, and moves out of the pack, offering a broader perspective of the world that they exist in, it feels for a moment as though we are just remembering that we are human. We are reminded for the first time that Ramochka is a boy of just six years old, although his actions and thoughts earlier in the book make him seem at least like a wiry teen, and at most like a feral dog. As he begins the rocky journey back into humanity, we feel what it is like to be so removed from society, truly existing from the outside in.
This brilliant book explores what it is to be human. Reading Dog Boy is an immersive experience that is at times challenging, and frequently confronts our notions of safety and stability. Eva Hornung has done with a pack of wild dogs what could not have been done in any human setting, and that is to remove a human child, too young to learn to be a human and put them in an environment where they instead learn to be a dog. It questions learned behaviours versus our intrinsic instinct to ‘be’ human. And it challenges a ‘proper’ existance in a world that does not take care of the poor, by putting an abandoned child in with a pack of feral dogs – where he receives better care than he would have otherwise.
Dog Boy is thoroughly researched and so is heartbreaking in its reality – knowing that from our comfortable chairs we are reading a book that should be an astonishing stretch of imagination, but instead is a shocking portrayal of the truth. It is confronting fiction at its absolute best, and although it is not an easy read, Dog Boy is a book that should absolutely be read.