Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

Rating 8.5/10
Starwuffs, episode 1, the labrador bites back

When for our next cooperative reading venture Mrs. Dark suggested reading a book that was new to both of us, Dogsbody was an obvious choice. After all, we're both hard core dog lovers, each of us having a "big black furry thing" (as my lady puts it), and I have always loved Diana Wynne Jones, although Dogsbody was one of hers I'd not yet read. When I found the book is recommended by both Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman, which clinched the matter, especially with Dogsbody’s truly unique premise.

Dogsbody follows the adventures of Sirius the dog star, who, after being accused of losing his temper and killing another stellar being (a luminary), is condemned to be born on earth as a dog. His only hope is to find the Zoi, an object of amazing power lost on earth.

Right from the start therefore, Dogsbody involves one of the most contrasting themes possible. Wynne Jones represents the stellar luminaries as nearly incomprehensible beings of unimaginable power and majesty. On the other hand, for most of the book Sirius is a dog, and Wynne Jones depiction of canine experience is frighteningly down to earth.

One thing I've always admired in Wynne Jones writing is a style which combines a quick, no nonsense irony, with a strange and earthy kind of poetry. I don't know many authors who are able to intimately show a world distinctly full of the concerns, experiences and everyday lives of their characters, even taking the magical or fantastic in stride as just part of those concerns, yet at the same time have little adroit twists of description that flick into the beautiful or mysterious.

This stylistic gift is fully in force in Dogsbody, whether in the brief glimpses we get of the complex, glittering world of the luminaries, or the more frequent warm and animal experiences of Sirius as a dog. It becomes clear very early on that Wynne Jones is not only fond of dogs and cats, but more critically understands them extremely well. I've seen few other authors quite as able to convey the feelings, experiences and narrow world of a puppy lying next to its mother and scrambling with other puppies, yet at the same time make it feel real, detailing the frustration of puppies who want to explore and the sudden intervention of human hands, without once dipping into the cute. Cuteness indeed is not something Wynne Jones indulges in at all in the book, particularly since in many ways Dogsbody is not a pleasant read. From the moment when Sirius and his fellow pups are dropped into a river to drown, it becomes obvious that the world of dogs is not a kind one.

This grittiness is not just reserved for the canine characters, as  when Sirius is saved from drowning by a girl called Cathleen, an Irish girl staying with the Duffield family, another nastier theme begins in the book, that of a child experiencing physical and emotional abuse.

In her offhand, pragmatic style which is here quite brutal, Wynne Jones explains almost casually how Cathleen is intensely disliked by Mrs. Duffield, aka Duffy, repeatedly insulted, frequently beaten and forced to do all of the housework. The beatings and cruelties quickly spread to Sirius as well, and it becomes more than ever clear just how little power either Cathleen or Sirius has, especially with Duffy's threats to have Sirius put down if Cathleen doesn't do what she wants.
 
Characters have always been something I admired in Wynne Jones writing, and Dogsbody is no exception. Wynne Jones is one of the few authors I know who can write books whose protagonists are somewhat selfish, but at the same time likeable. Sirius however breaks this mould since despite a temper and the need to reconcile his two natures, he's generally extremely pleasant, particularly since his fits of temper are always reserved for those who deserve it. While Cathleen as a bright, lonely and compassionate child in unquestionably bad circumstances is someone any reader with a heart would warm to by default, Wynne Jones simply lets her be likeable without forcing the issue, indeed some of the very practical irritations Cathleen has of things like attempting to hoover around an inconveniently large white dog make her even more sympathetic by making her feel grounded, particularly since Wynne Jones never indulges in narrative judgements about Cathleen or tells us that she is "sweet" she just lets her stand on her own merits. Duffy, although she reminded my lady very much of Miss Minchin from Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Princess, with her frequent abuse of Cathleen while making herself out to be endlessly put-upon has a highly real nastiness to her, the unpleasant self justification of any bully convinced of their own rightness.

Similarly, Cathleen's distant uncle who lets the mistreatment of Cathleen continue simply because he wants a quiet life and only intervenes when he feels uncomfortable, and her cousins, the odious Basil who follows his mother at mistreating Cathleen, and the young Robin who is torn between his liking for Cathleen and his loyalty to his brother are unfortunately all worryingly believable too.

As well as its human cast, Dogsbody also features a number of animal characters. Although Wynne Jones does follow a little literary convention in giving Sirius (as an incarnate luminary), the ability to learn to understand human speech (though never to speak it), she also does feature a number of animal characters who Sirius is able to freely talk to. The three family cats for example and Sirius developing enmities and alliances with them, not to mention Sirius' discovery of several other dogs all are handled extremely well, in particular I love the fact that not only Sirius but all the other animals we meet are very much typical animals, and yet fully rounded characters in their own right.

One area where Dogsbody does come up short is the fact that for its first half the plot moves rather slowly. While Sirius ongoing exploration of the world and his nature as a dog is fascinating, at the same time the constant physical, verbal and emotional abuse of Cathleen (and to a lesser extent Sirius), can be pretty wearing, not only because it is uncomfortable, but also because it feels like the plot and characters are sitting still. Not that Wynne Jones wallows in gory details, however the repeated incidents of Cathleen being hit, insulted and treated as a literal slave, as well as Sirius own mistreatment which ranges from being forcibly tied up in a yard to also being beaten is definitely distressing, particularly since Wynne Jones does not progress the plot surrounding Sirius and the Zoi or even introduce characters from outside the Duffield house until a good halfway through the novel. Admittedly, this is a tendency I've noticed in a couple of Wynne Jones other books, her ability to deal so immediately with characters' experiences that she sometimes drags the novel's pace overly much into the mundane (one chapter of Howl's Moving Castle is titled "What a lot of washing"), however with the added dimension of Cathleen's mistreatment this was harder to take in Dogsbody.

That is not saying the earthly sections of the book are lacking in tension. Duffy we learn is a potter, and of course Wynne Jones mines every ounce of tension from the threat of pots being smashed, though the fact that for Cathleen, Sirius and the cats this is literally a threat of violence or death does rob the possibility of pot smashing of its slapstick absurdity.

Despite the unpleasantness though, the book is far from devoid of humour, indeed a large part of amusement comes from just how well Wynne Jones depicts the lives and motivations of animals, for example when Sirius meets several other dogs who effusively repeat "hello, hello, hello" (something which anyone familiar with dogs will recognize). Similarly times when Sirius' motivations are utterly misunderstood, such as when he, understanding Cathleen is tired of spring cleaning attempts to "help" by putting himself in the way, have a wonderful tinge of observational humour.

When the supernatural elements impinge upon the plot however, things definitely progress. In particular, characters such as the brash Sol, the caring Earth and even the Moon take a hand in Sirius’ story. One thing I greatly admire about this turn of the plot is that you really get the sense of the luminaries as beings with unimaginable power, but at the same time distinct limits, indeed another brand of humour is had from the fact that Sol's influence is very much based upon his light and though he can effect events through this light, such as when he dazzles the driver of an oil truck to oil the rusty hinges of a gate so Sirius can go looking for the Zoi, like the best sort of literary god he must show restraint. The same is true of The Earth, and though it plays a much smaller roll, The Moon. This sparing touch with celestial powers means that the book always maintains its level of danger and never gives the idea that power automatically makes for safety. 
Also in a move which is typical of Wynne Jones, the supernatural and natural blend seamlessly with each other, whether with Sirius' dual natures as both dog and dog star, or with hostile powers attempting to kill Sirius in the night and being mistaken for burglars. The only problem with this introduction of fantastical elements, is that Wynne Jones, having spent such a long time on the more mundane aspects did seem to have to wrap things up a bit abruptly. It was frankly disappointing to both my lady and myself that while the fantastical villains did meet an end, the more human, and arguably nastier Duffy didn't, indeed while Wynne Jones does have a confrontation between Cathleen and Duffy, this confrontation doesn't go nearly far enough, and though Cathleen does get a happy Oliver Twist style ending, after having to sit through so much of her unpleasantness, not seeing Duffy get any sort of comeuppance was frankly a let down.

In fairness I can understand perhaps why Wynne Jones missed a couple of things, since despite being able to deal with the life of a dog so immediately, Dogsbody is a story with a lot of ground to cover. Not only the differences between awesome luminaries and dogs, but also themes of how we treat animals, being an outsider and even a little on nationalism, as well as some great development of its characters. Though it does irk a little that Wynne Jones doesn't perhaps use her time and resources evenly, the fact that she packs so much in is certainly a bonus, particularly since so much of the story is at such a humble level.

The ending , while satisfying at the same time had a few too many spots that needed guessing at, attempts to try things which simply didn't work for the plot to just straight out move on leaving things hanging (for one notably mysterious character quite badly so). There were several turns of plot which simply weren't defined, and a couple of oversights which Wynne Jones really ought to have filled in, particularly since the ending is not entirely a happy one, or at least ends on a number of questions which should have been asked a little more firmly rather than having Wynne Jones just gloss over events with descriptions.

Then again the questions, and the possibilities of the ending, once we puzzled out what they were, did make Sirius’ journey feel highly satisfying, even if sadly Cathleen's wasn't, especially for the lack of any sort of resolution of the plot concerning Duffy and indeed the implication that Duffy could perhaps start mistreating her own children (I actually feel a bit worried for little Robin).

Dogsbody, though showing some of the lack of resolution of a book written comparatively early in Wynne Jones career, is nevertheless an amazing story. Few books I've encountered have managed to blend the heavenly and earthly quite so spectacularly, nor have I read books that show quite this level of understanding when it comes to the lives of animals. Though Dogsbody has a few rough edges, it succeeds far more than it fails, and thus is a book I can highly recommend, especially for people who like my lady and me have a fondness for furry things.

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