The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Adult fiction review
The Dog Stars was shortlisted for the 2013 Arthur C Clarke Award which annually awards the best science fiction novel in Britain.
I really, really enjoyed this book from the moment I started reading it.
The Dog Stars is about a forty year old man called Hig. He lives with his dog Jasper, a man called Bangley, and the Beast, his Cessna plane. Jasper is his best and beloved friend, Hig is partial to the Beast and he despises Bangley. Everyone and everything else they have known has been wiped out by viruses (including Hig's beloved Melissa): the world-as-they-knew-it has ended. There are few survivors, a lot of shortages, and a lot of unknowns. Not an original post-apocalyptic scenario yet still a scary and strangely fascinating one.
Hig is lamenting. Lamenting all that he has lost. Lamenting all that he has and what he has become – if you see something moving, kill it. No questions asked. Do not negotiate. And lamenting the future. Does he dare to change its seemingly inevitable course? This is a story about whether you dare to rename the stars - and then follow them. To boldy go...or not.
It is a compelling and quick read. I even interrupted my reading of another novel (by an established author whose books I enjoy a lot) to read this one. I loved Heller’s writing style, particularly in the first chapter. Short truncated sentences. Ellipses. This is stream of consciousness writing that I could readily understand and beautifully conveys the narrator’s immediate thought processes. It lets you get right inside his head and by the third page I had to put the book down and let the tears flow. Clearly, it hit a nerve.
For an apocalyptic novel, there’s an interesting mix of this being an action, adventure, masculinised novel and an introspective, emotional and relationship novel. In a weird sort of way, I found this exciting: a bit like I was going somewhere I’d never been before with the feminist in me sounding occasional alarm bells yet at the same time rushing forward with the story. If ever there was something that epitomises a man getting in touch with his feminine side (if you think there is such a thing), I think The Dog Stars achieves this. It’s a highly believable novel.
Book One was my favourite part of the novel although Book Two and Three surprised me. There are a few predictable ways the story could have gone. I think it was predictable – but not in the way I’d have predicted.
I thought there was good characterisation for all of the characters: there aren’t many but you have a good sense of who they are even for those characters who only make cameo appearances. I was able to empathise (and like) almost all of the characters (definitely barring one and maybe two). This really is a book about the essence of humanity (at both its worst and its best). Some of the behaviours and thoughts of the characters are really crude and base (and that’s probably exactly how some of them would be). There is a lot of killing in this book and themes of cannibalism but it is also the best kind of love story. In many ways this is a brutal book but based on my reading of The Dog Stars, the UK paperback cover (pictured) is spot on. Sublime.
Without giving too much plot away, I was afraid to read this book. I thought it was going to shock me and leave me in despair. Parts of it shocked me. It did not leave me in despair.
The representation of women in the novel:As a feminist, I did enjoy this book, I would highly recommend it and think that it does challenge sexist behaviour. However, from a gendered analysis, women characters are seen as needing protection and there was some traditionally heteronormative gender stereotyping, e.g. hysterical women and caring women. While heavily challenged, there is still some portrayal of woman as sexual objects. However, the overall point is that Hig is not Bangley.
Publication details: Headline Review, London, paperback publication: 9 May 2013, originally published in hardback 2012This copy: paperback edition received from the publisher for review