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Dogsbody

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: Entertaining story mixing fantasy and reality. Intelligent celestial beings. Arawn and his hounds from Welsh mythology. An Irish girl who draws strength from her dog when her father is imprisoned for terrorism. Family tragedy. Non-judgemental references to the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Cover of Dogsbody

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published in: 1975

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Contemporary

Genres:  AnimalCoping withFantasy


Characters:

  • Sirius is a Luminary -- the denizen of a major star -- exiled to Earth as a puppy. He must balance his task of finding the lost Zoi and of being a friend to his human and canine acquaintances.
  • Kathleen is an Irish youngster staying with grudging English relatives while her father is in prison for terrorist-related crimes. She has to endure the coldness of her aunt and cousins and the mockery of schoolmates while holding out for her father's release.

Synopsis:

Sirius, the personification of the Dogstar, is exiled to Earth and given the lifespan of a dog to discover the whereabouts of the Zoi, a celestial tool of immense power which was allegedly used by him to destroy another Luminary. He has the limitations of his canine body but slowly remembers the task for which he was exiled. At the same time he is drawn to help and comfort his owner Kathleen who has troubles of her own. He befriends the house cats, other dogs, other humans, and Sol, the celestial being of this Solar System. Finally he encounters a mysterious Hunter, a child of Earth, who has possession of the Zoi.

Notes:

A curious mixture, bringing together a fantasy where celestial bodies are personified and a very human reality where a young girl is enduring coldness and mockery while her father is in prison. And then, out of nowhere, the fabled Hounds of Annwn enter the tale with their mythological master. (These personified stars always make me think of the fallen stars Lewis depicts in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader or of his Oyeresu in the Ransom Trilogy).

The author deftly weaves the different levels of storytelling in with each other, with Sirius at their centre. While still a dog, and driven by doggy instincts, he recalls little by little the powerful being that he was and the task he has been given. Getting that balance right is key to the story and the author succeeds. At no point is Sirius simply a lordly being wholly frustrated by being confined to a dog-suit. Nor, once he has recalled his former life, is he ever entirely a dog again. Except, perhaps, when he joins the ranks of suitors lining up in front of a bitch in heat without really understanding what strange compulsion keeps him there. The author see-saws just nicely between what Sirius is trying to communicate and what the humans are understanding. It occasionally verges on the faintly comical, but comedy is not the aim of the story and it never goes beyond a slight smile.

Sirius, in his doggy way, manages to make friends around the town as he scrounges for the food Kathleen is too hard up to provide. He chances on other dogs from the same litter, a fact which he turns to his advantage when being chased later on by renegade celestial beings. He also befriends various people who are happy to give him food, and especially Mrs Smith who recognises something special in him and who is able to help Kathleen out when her aunt orders the dog to be put down.

The Duffield family, Kathleen's uncle and his wife and children, make her life difficult but are not caricatures. The reader is, early on, given the benefit of Sirius' newly-regained powers of perception. The well-meaning husband who hides from problems unless they inconvenience him personally; the older son who mocks his cousin because he's copying his mother; the younger son who is torn between aping his older brother and being his own affectionate self. And all of them have their better moments. Except, unfortunately, Mrs Duffield who is unregenerate to the end.

The book was written in 1975 and the troubles in Northern Ireland which form part of Kathleen's backstory may well be unfamiliar to young readers today. Interestingly it appears that Kathleen's father has been justly imprisoned for terrorist activities: that is, there's no suggestion that he was in fact innocent. The story focuses on Kathleen's loneliness and on the cruel treatment she receives at the hands of some of her family and schoolmates. There's no particular judgement made by any characters on her father's actions.

The story's emotional centre is the relationship between Sirius, exiled from his star, and Kathleen, exiled from her native Ireland. His natural inclination is to put his own needs first while his new-found canine tendency is to comfort Kathleen. The story makes it clear that Sirius was framed and that his trial and punishment were a politically pragmatic manoeuvre. At the same time the circumstantial evidence brought against him of his readiness to flare up in anger are well-founded. It's not clear whether his time on Earth as a dog genuinely improves him in this respect, but at the end he is certainly far more ready to do things for other people than for himself. In particular, he realises that what he formerly viewed as affection for his Companion star was little more than the infatuation dogs feel for a bitch in heat. (There are no indelicacies in the narrative on this front). And he realises also that his rather doggy affection for Kathleen, who has problems of her own, is somewhat more genuine.

The story missteps a little at its denouement. The reader's sympathy is centrally with Kathleen who's just received tragic news. And Sirius is likewise drawn to comfort her in her sorrow. At the same time his own quest has come to a head as he gets news of his particular McGuffin: the Zoi. The reader cares far more for Kathleen than for the somewhat sterile Zoi but can just about balance the two. Then to complicate matters further, Arawn the Hunter turns up with his hellhounds (an arrival sempahored earlier in the book when Kathleen is reading out loud to the house animals). I couldn't help feeling that this third strand of storyline — whatever your views may be on Pagan mythologies — confused the story more than it helped. In time-honoured fasion this Huntsman grants the children a wish each, only one of which really turns out as expected. At this point, wisely I think, the story turns practical rather than sentimental. It is Sirius the dog whom Kathleen has loved; Sirius the newly-reborn Luminary is beyond her comprehension and she can only manage to be polite to it while mourning the loss of her dog.

Early in the book Kathleen is reading out loud to her dog and the cats at bedtime. Tibbles, the older cat whom Sirius has just rescued, warns him that the stories aren't real. But adds the rider that humans assume that in the past everything was possible, and that right now nothing is. The suggestion is that neither assumption is wholly correct. Of course, this book itself — within its own world — makes the same point: that even today things aren't always what they seem. However, this fairy-tale of sorts is a story which avoids too neat a happy ending and which warns against fary-tale answers.

Themes:

  • The troubles in Northern Ireland
  • The faithfulness of dogs (and the fickleness of cats)

Tuesday 29th November 2011