Review: ‘The Dog’ — a lawyer howls for freedom in Dubai

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By Judge John Hack on

A former London barrister has written a witty and entertaining tale of ex-pat life in the psychologically confusing emirate


With the kerfuffle that is the literary love-in around the Man Booker Prize finally subsiding, it is safe for Legal Cheek to wade in and assess one of the long-listed novels that boasts more than just a legal theme, but features a New York lawyer lead character — and was penned by a former London barrister.

The Dog’s author, Irishman Joseph O’Neill, practised at the commercial bar for 10 years before he decided that the law was doing his head in.

So he sacked off chambers and decided to hit the well-worn trail forged by so many of his countrymen to New York City, where hey presto, O’Neill has become something of a literary sensation.

His big splash came with 2008’s Netherland, which told the story of a Dutch immigrant living in New York in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.

The Dog also involves a fish-out-of-water theme — this time a New York lawyer bails from his posh private client Manhattan law firm to take a role heading the family office of a distinctly dodgy sounding Lebanese patriarch, whose business base is in Dubai.

In the real world, over the last dozen or so years, more western lawyers have washed up on the shores of this erstwhile back-of-beyond desert nowheresville than pearls were ever hauled out of its waters. English, US and even continental European law firms have tripped over each other to get a slice of the action in the emirate’s new-found role as the Singapore of the Persian Gulf.

Indeed, even Judge John Hack ended up there for a couple of years at the end of the noughties, so unusually he speaks with some degree of authority on this subject.

Which is as good a way as any of introducing the suggestion that The Dog is well worth the short amount of time it will take any reader of moderate speed to get through.

The novel astutely and entertainingly captures the inanities of ex-pat life in UAE (the Judge’s own stock line is that he’d never had the pleasure of spending a Saturday night in Romford until he’d been to Dubai). Which is impressive, as O’Neill has said in interviews that he only spent about a fortnight in the emirate to pick up the ambiance. (Mind you, many would argue that a fortnight of Dubai ambiance is about 13 days too long.)

The author has also authentically captured the sound of a pedantic, ethically and morally tortured lawyer lead character. Some of the first-person narrative involves 150-word sentences, with multiple parenthetical phrases that reek of a legal training and too much time poring over contract law texts.

But don’t let that put you off. Descriptions of shopping mall life (the true religion in Dubai that far supersedes Islam), encounters with prostitutes and pornography and various brain-dead expatriates, who are all keen to turn a Nelsonian eye to Dubai’s hypocrisies and human rights abuses more than counterbalance the instances of navel gazing verbiage.

One tiny fault — for the Judge, at any rate — is that the New York lawyer doesn’t sound terribly American. There is the odd bit of slang, a baseball or basketball reference here and there, but on balance, the lead character sounds a lot like an Irishman who has spent a lot of time in England before going to New York.

Also, don’t expect much to happen in The Dog — the title is a reference to the protagonist’s unfilled desire for a canine companion — as not a lot does. There is some mystery, some intrigue and some sex, but they are all relative sideshows to the lead character’s psychological battle with himself and his surroundings.

Nonetheless, it deftly and intriguingly captures a time and place, offers a few philosophical points about legal practice, and wraps up the whole shooting match in about 240 pages. You can’t ask for much more than that.

The Dog, by Joseph O’Neill, published by HarperCollins.


Apologies to Inappropriate Gavels.