This may not have been a book I would ordinarily have chosen and I confess, I hadn’t even heard of it before it was announced that it was to be made in to a film, but having just finished the final page today, I’m thrilled that I’ve discovered, not just a superb novel, but also a writer whose other work is now firmly on my must read list.
The Power of the Dog is set in the world of the American West, specifically Montana in 1925, where the Burbank family are one of the most successful and indeed wealthy, ranching families in the area. With the parents having moved to a comfortable retired life in Salt Lake City, the ranch is now run by brothers Phil and George.
They may be only two years apart in age, but they couldn’t be more different, in both looks and temperament. George is stocky and lacking in confidence and conversation and yet is a kind man, who handles the managerial side of the business. Phil, his older brother (albeit by just two years) is described as being tall and slender and whose good looks are matched by his intelligence. Phil was the successful student and has gone on to be the conversationalist, with a sharp mind and the ability, it seems, to be successful at whatever he turns his hand to doing. He’s an excellent horseman, musician, plays chess, braids his own ropes and prides himself on getting on better with the ranch hands than his brother, choosing to spend time with them in the bunkhouse and recounting stories from 20 years ago when he was young like them. He cannot stand social climbers and will not conform to what society expects from a man of his wealth and standing.
Yet, it soon becomes clear that while George is kind and considerate of the feelings of others, Phil is cold and takes immense pleasure in upsetting and emotionally destabilising those around him. He calls his brother Fatso and enjoys the idea that the ranch hands respect him more than George. He is also incredibly prejudiced and his comments and thoughts about people’s race, culture, or sexuality make for uncomfortable reading, but it’s when his brother marries a young widow and she comes to live with them at the ranch that we see just how unpleasant Phil can be. She is not welcome in his home and he is not going to pretend otherwise and it’s clear he’d be overjoyed if there was a way of getting rid of her. Then, when summer arrives, her 16 year-old son Peter comes to stay for the school holidays and thrillingly for the reader, the psychological games of chess step up a level.
I loved Thomas Savage’s writing. It seemed to flow from the page and was so easy to read, but that’s not to say it is a simplistic novel. On the contrary, it’s superbly layered with rich characters, who the reader truly gets to know, through a narrative that shifts to different perspectives. You get to understand who Rose is both before and after she marries George and the emotions she experiences once she arrives as the new Mrs Burbank come vividly to life on the page. It’s also notable that a book written in the 1960s by a male writer does such a fantastic job of creating a very authentic, multi-faceted female character within a male- dominated world.
Peter is also a wonderfully fascinating character, who you find yourself wanting to know more and more about. He’s clearly not your average boy and ironically, despite Phil’s disgust when he sees him, Peter is the one who very likely matches Phil’s sharp mind, absorbing knowledge from his late father’s collection of books, from his studies and from the world around him. They both also play chess, which seems appropriate.
However, at the centre of the book is Phil and he’s such a compelling character and Savage’s writing mines the depths of who he is and why he has chosen the life and mindset he has. Part of the book’s brilliance too, is how it adds in references to people and events that you realise are much more significant the further through the story you are. Is there a reason Phil seems to be fixated on his stories from the past? Are the reasons for Phil’s dreadful personality perhaps more complex than you first thought? Nothing is simple in this novel and I loved that. It made the conclusion all the more satisfying.
It isn’t just the personalities of the main characters that Savage writes about either. There are incidental personalities who drift in and out, but who are still very realised, whether the older Burbanks, or the son of the Chief, whose land this once was and who is determined to show his son where they once lived. They aren’t a big part of the story, but Savage ensures that you emotionally connect with them in just a short amount of time. Then there are the rich descriptions of the town of Beech, of the stunning landscape, of the weather and how that impacts both the environment and the minds of the characters; you effortlessly picture it all in your mind as you read, even if you’ve never been to anywhere like it and as well as the visuals, Savage makes sound important too, whether the closing of a certain door, or the whistle of a character, or even the use of instruments, they all add to the feeling of uncomfortable tension that fills the Burbank ranch.
This is a fantastic book, which very much deserves your time. You certainly won’t regret immersing yourself in the world Thomas Savage weaves in your imagination.
Thoughts on the upcoming film
Yes, this is a book review, but I can’t not talk about the upcoming release of the film adaptation, which arrives on Netflix in December, but is already hotly tipped for the awards season and having now read the novel, I’m even more excited for the film. The adaptation has been written and directed by Jane Campion and if anyone can bring to life the world of Savage’s book, it’s her. Perhaps most people know her best for the film The Piano, but my first thoughts when thinking about the style she’ll bring to this story, were of the BBC series Top of The Lake, which captured a mood and atmosphere vital to telling that story and I imagine she’ll do the same for The Power of the Dog.
Not only is their an exciting storyteller at the helm of the project, but her cast is led by one of the finest British actors of any generation, Benedict Cumberbatch and as someone who has been a fan of his work on both stage and screen since I watched him at the National Theatre in 2010, my expectations are sky high for the performance we could see from him as Phil Burbank. I admit, he was in my mind as I read the book, but I could imagine him perfectly inhabiting that person. Few actors have the range needed for a complex character like Phil Burbank and this is absolutely an opportunity for Cumberbatch to add a shiny Oscar statuette to his mantelpiece. This really could be one of his most impactful roles yet.
In the supporting roles are strong talent such as Kirsten Dunst (who I’ve not seen in a really juicy role for years) and Jesse Plemons (who I last saw in Judas and the Black Messiah) and I’ll be excited to see Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, who I’ve only seen so far as Nightcrawler in the X-Men franchise. It’s also a fantastic film for females behind the camera. As well as Campion writing and directing, Ari Wegner will be in charge of the cinematography, which will be such a key part of this film.
The short teaser for the film has just been released and it’s perfect at conveying the mood and tone of the film without giving anything away to those who haven’t read the book. For those that have, you appreciate the brilliance of such a simple teaser on a different level. It’s actually a lot like the book itself – it has many more layers to it than you may realise.
The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage is available at all the usual book stockists, but as this is my blog, I’ll link to my favourite independent bookshop West End Lane Books, which delivers nationally and internationally. Pop in, or just email them what you’re looking for and they’ll do the rest – https://www.welbooks.co.uk
You can watch the teaser trailer for the film here – https://youtu.be/ELvKuuXdfCU