Sight Hound, By Pam Houston, W.W. Norton & Co., 342 pp, $23.95
As a restless middle-age playwright living on her Colorado ranch, Rae Rutherford is so haunted by childhood memories of her abusive parents that she cannot even imagine love in her life, much less believe she deserves it.
Haunted, that is, until Rae's wise and devoted Irish wolfhound Dante comes along. His life and death taught her that, ''without loss, life isn't worth a hill of beans. And without love, life is nothing more than a series of losses."
There is an urbane wildness to Pam Houston's writing, a denim and pearls aura that may explain why this author of ''Cowboys Are My Weakness" and other essay and short-story collections took on so traditional a subject as love in her first novel, but in a most untraditional way -- narrated by a dozen characters, including two dogs and a cat.
''Sight Hound" is not a love story, however, as much as it is a poignant exploration of emotional healing and redemption through love. Rae and others come to realize that life's most important values -- generosity, kindness, intimacy, honesty, and simplicity -- arise from the inevitable suffering we experience along the way. Dante is their guide, helping them find peace and purpose through their relationships with him.
''I wanted her to see that the only life worth living is a life full of love; that loss is always part of the equation; that love and loss conjoined are the best opportunity we ever get to live fully, to be our strongest, our most compassionate, our most graceful selves," Dante says of Rae near the end of the novel, shortly before he dies of cancer.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters, with several reappearing through the novel, Rae most often. They include Rae's caretaker, Darlene; her eventual husband, Howard; her newfound friend Jodi; her therapist Theo; and her veterinarian Dr. Evans, among others. These characters tell of the roughly three years between Dante's surgery to remove a leg and the time following his death, unveiling in the process the emotional wounds they have experienced in their own lives, wounds in most cases healed through their interaction with the wolfhound and those who cared for him.
The chapters are interwoven in such a way as to offer differing perspectives on the same events, with the story evolving as a kind of collaboration among the characters. At the same time, because each character speaks discretely and directly to the reader, and because there are so many characters speaking, the reader feels drawn into confidential, almost confessional relationships with each one, an intimacy underscoring those between the characters themselves. Houston is masterful in creating this effect.
Rae says a newspaper once called her ''a playwright of unfamiliar landscapes." The same might be said of Houston as a novelist. For ''Sight Hound" is a story of the heart, but on a landscape too essential to be familiar -- a restorative place where, as Howard says, ''a good life is as simple as you let it be."