Hig is a survivor. He has survived the sickness that claimed his wife and family, and the trout he loved to fish. He is coping, just, in the new wilderness of post-apocalyptic America, because he has three things to live for – his beloved dog Jasper, his aggressive but resourceful neighbour, Bangley, and his Cessna aeroplane. Thanks to the plane, he has a lifeline: he can search for food with Jasper, while Bangley keeps watch for feral fellow-outlaws. The problem is that not much fuel is left.
But Hig’s loneliness is becoming unbearable. When he picks up the distorted voice of another human on his radio, he is unable to shake the thought that there might be someone else out there. He knows he must resist looking because the journey is too risky, and there will not be enough fuel to fly back. He must resist, but he can’t. And so, one bleak day, he flies over the horizon, in search of the truth.
What follows is scarier and more life-affirming than he could have imagined.
This might be a somewhat unexpected title to appear as one of my reviews, as its connection to the speculative is tenuous at best – it’s set in a post-apocalyptic America – and it’s not historical or crime fiction either. In fact, I think this falls firmly in the mainstream fiction category. Nevertheless, when a review copy for this title came in the post I was intrigued and added it to my TBR-pile meaning to get to it sooner rather than later. Of course, it did become later rather than sooner, but I’m glad I got to it before the end of the year, as it was an interesting read. I have my share of issues with the story and the writing, but in the end I had to keep reading, just to discover how it ended.
What troubled me the most about this book and what will probably be the biggest issue for most readers is the structure and the writing. Told in a first person narrative voice, this is a voice I’ve never encountered before. Though it not a stream-of-consciousness form, it isn’t far off and at times Hig goes off on tangents and reminiscences that make for confusing sequences. In addition, Heller has Hig add random but’s and and’s into his narration, which for me where highly annoying most of the time. On top of the strange narrative structure, the book is also typographically different; it uses no quotation marks to indicate speech and when in dialogue it sometimes places alternating lines in one paragraph, so that it’s hard to distinguish between the speakers. There is also a distinct scarcity of comma’s and lots of short paragraphs with blank lines in between. While all of this makes for a unique reading experience, it doesn’t necessarily make it a smooth one.
What bothered me story wise is the fact that some elements of the story seemed illogical. I couldn’t fathom why in the nine years since the Flu there haven’t appeared any non-combative groups of survivors, other than the arguably not-so-non-combative Bangley. Similarly, would you really wait nine years to go and explore on the other side of the mountain and look for other survivors? Heller doesn’t really answer these questions, in fact he never really posits them, which I found rather strange.
Where The Dog Stars definitely succeeds however is in emotionally engaging the reader. It’s impossible not to come to care for Hig and even his grouchy companion Bangley. Their interactions and grudging friendship are beautifully addressed with surprising flashes of humour. Hig’s deep and abiding love for his dog Jasper felt genuine and at one point in the novel had me sniffling aloud. When Hig finally goes out to look for the voice behind the crackly transmission he heard and he encounters Pops and Cima we get treated to a soulful exploration of what it means to have to move on after the loss of a spouse, how terrifying and enchanting that sensation of falling in love can be and how hard it is to move beyond the memories.
The Dog Stars has left me with very mixed feelings. I was very much taken with the story and the ultimate message of hope Heller presents the reader with, but with all my issues with the structure and the writing I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly. In the end, I think, how you’ll like this book is very much dependent on the emotional connection you make with both Hig and the narrative. For me that connection wasn’t sufficient to overlook my objections, but if the premise of the story appeals, I’d recommend you give it a try as the story might work far better for you than it did for me.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.