Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a bright shining gem of a book; a sharp, intimate examination of the human-canine bond, grief, and — unexpectedly — writing. The understated simplicity of Nunez’s writing — its bold unsentimentality that only adds to its unique charm and poignancy — is artistry of the highest order.
Ostensibly The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged writing professor (and the book’s narrator) whose best friend and mentor commits suicide, leading her to become the caretaker of his ageing Great Dane, Apollo. Our narrator isn’t especially fond of dogs, though nor does she particularly abhor them; she’s just never wanted one as a companion, and even if she did, her lease in her Manhattan apartment forbids it. But guilted into adopting the friendly giant — not because of arguments supplied by her friend’s third wife, but because of her enduring devotion to the dead man — Apollo becomes her companion.
You’re wrong if you’re thinking the book then becomes a comedy of errors, as human and dog acclimate to each other’s tendencies, overcome their loss, and form an unbreakable bond, although their allegiance is ultimately absolute. Though our narrator’s commentary on her new life with Apollo is peppered with drily comedic moments, The Friend is a wholly melancholic tale, though somehow not depressive or grim, almost entirely free of plot, essentially a meditation on grief and the art and world of writing and writers, peppered with a ton of literary references that had me scratching author names and their works in my notebook for future reference. My favourite moments didn’t actually involve Apollo; reserved instead for the narrator’s savage yet subtle takedowns on the literary world.
The Friend seduces and endures because of its voice: meditative, hypnotic, and very real. It has set a gold-star standard of reading for 2019, and it will be a book I return to regularly in years to come.