Book Review: Doghead – Morten Ramsland

Doghead chronicles the history of a European family, from the origins of the grandfather Askild, to the story of the narrator and his grandchild Asger. Coming into the story with no hindsight into what was to come, the jumps from modern day into pre-WWII Sweden and back again were initially jarring and made identifying characters a slight challenge. Once Doghead finds a more focussed groove the characters and structure begin to fall into place nicely.

The overall narrative of Doghead is essentially interwoven throughout a collection of short stories which predominately follow the story of a Holocaust survivor named Askild and his eldest son Niels. The events themselves are secondary to the bigger picture of how they come to shape the characters in the following pages. In one sequence, Askild breaks the nose of his youngest son Knut after his recklessness starts a forest fire. This event greatly reshapes the way Knut interacts with his father in the later pages and is just one example of the masterful continuity Ramsland employs in Doghead.

Unsurprisingly, the characters and family dynamic described in Doghead are deeply flawed and dysfunctional. Askild in particular, is a selfish, frustrating and wholly damaged character whose stubbornness and harsh manner put his family in tumultuous more than once. His wife Bjork, while naturally more pleasant, isn’t much better with her deceitfulness and forced ignorance to the plight of those around her. While almost every character has these fundamental flaws which make them hard to like individually, as a collective, it’s hard not to want the best for the struggling family.

A good three quarters of Doghead is paced and structured perfectly, sticking predominately in the past with the story of Niels and only occasionally switching back to the present day plot to advance the present proceedings. The last quarter takes an unnecessary turn though, adding in a completely fresh plot line and rushing through another overwrought origin story that frustratingly detours away from the main story for too much time. The ending also overextends itself, reaching for levels of obscenity that fail to blend with the tight, family drama and tragedy that Ramsland conveys so efficiently.

Niggling flaws aside, Doghead brings family dysfunction to the uncomfortable forefront and thrives off its frustrating characters and the biological bond that forces them together for eternity.

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