193. Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
Publication: Puffin Books (March 1978), Paperback, 208pp / ISBN 0140310029
Genre: Children’s Fantasy/Sci-fi
Read: November 9, 2012
Source: Contest win
Summary from Amazon:
The Dog Star, Sirius, is tried for murder by his heavenly peers and found guilty. His sentence: to be reborn on Earth as a dog until such time as he carries out the seemingly impossible mission imposed on him.
In his Earth guise, Sirius, renamed Leo, truly lives a dog’s life. Although he is the pet of a girl who loves him, both child and dog are mistreated by the family with whom they live. But the worldly obstacles Leo faces are minor when compared with his chilling encounters with the Dark Powers that are set against him. His quest seems hopeless until at lost Sol, Moon, and Earth itself come to his aid.
Dogsbody is a tense, exciting, sciencefiction fantasy, a thriller, and a touching dog story all in one.
The nice thing about authors who write over a period of multiple decades is that they (usually) have the opportunity to try out different genres, writing styles, and so on. Diana Wynne Jones mostly wrote in fantasy-ish genres, but she did a few sci-fi stories that aren’t too bad, either, and this one, Dogsbody, is probably her most famous of her pre-Howl’s Moving Castle writings. Seems like everyone recommends either this book or HMC (while I recommend Charmed Life), so I was really happy to win a copy of Dogsbody from Tif back in whenever-it-was and finally have a chance to read it!1
That said, after reading it I remembered why I mostly prefer post-Chrestomanci DWJ books to pre-Chrestomanci. Her early books have a different feeling to them than her later ones, though the elements and individual DWJ-ish touches are usually the same. For example! Dogsbody has some truly heinous adults running around causing trouble, kids being subjugated and mistreated2, and almost psychedlic fantasy/sci-fi moments that somehow make it all worse. It’s a very dark book, much darker than I was expecting, and though there’s good to balance out the bad, the bittersweet ending didn’t exactly make me want to shout “HURRAH I’ve finally read Dogsbody.” Instead I just sat there and stared at the walls for a bit going “well, I didn’t expect that.”
I mean, okay, yeah, Cat’s sister tries to kill him and steals his lives and so on. Conrad’s uncle tries to kill him/manipulates him his whole life, etc. But he never kicked the dog! Multiple times! Animal abuse! In MY Diana Wynne Jones book? Oh yeah.3 Also the stuff about poor Kathleen being treated like a maid4 by her own family while they berate her for being Irish, her classmates beat her up, etc. was way more harsh (and DESCRIPTIVE) than in DWJ’s later books– almost like she mellowed out later on? Or something? Not in this book, though, yeesh. In this book DWJ is in full on poke-you-in-the-eye “look at this horrible stuff” mode.
So it’s dark, and there’s depressing stuff. However! It is not ALL depressing. Sirius is adorable, if dense, and his journey to regain his proper place in the stars or whatever is pretty exciting stuff. It’s also wonderful how DWJ snuck in layers of STUFF under the surface story of a space dude trying to clear his name of murder. For instance, there’s (then-)current event stuff, mostly about the Northern Irish terrorist happenings that was going on back then. She also does that thing she does where they’re degrees of baddies, from full on villain (vile aunt) to teenage bully (older cousin) to would-probably-be-good-if-he-got-away-from-his-awful-family (younger). They’re terrible people, but they’re people who probably live next door to you and/or sell you their homemade pots, so. Urgh.
One of the best things in Dogsbody, though, is that it really emphasizes the need to look beyond the surface and see what’s underneath. Sirius is in the body of a dog, but he’s really a star-person-thing. Sirius thinks somebody close to him is amazing and wonderful, but that turns out to be completely wrong. Kathleen’s uncle seems to be kind of doddering but kind, but he’s totally a huge jerk instead. People don’t really like Duffie, but since she doesn’t have a sign that says “child abuser” around her neck people probably think she’s mostly harmless. And Kathleen, far from being a beaten-down tween, is a heroine in her own right.
Sometimes when authors stick in lessons like that, it comes off as overdone and trite and boring. Not so here! DWJ is REALLY REALLY GOOD at sneaking in things about Life in her books so you don’t even realize what’s going on for ages.
In conclusion, though I liked individual bits of Dogsbody and I’ll probably reread it again later and love it (maybe), at the moment I’m wanting the comfort of post-1981 Diana Wynne Jones books to help me recuperate after reading this one. Maybe it’s because the depressing stuff threw me off, maybe I just read it during the wrong part of my get-back-into-the-reading-groove plan, or maybe it’s just not ever going to be my favorite DWJ book. I still say that if you’ve never read a DWJ book before, you should read Howl’s Moving Castle or Charmed Life, but if you want something darker, something slightly more cynical, something more sci-fi than fantasy, and something that’s more emotionally raw than her later books, then Dogsbody‘s the book for you.
I liked it, even if it made me feel depressed afterward.
Library Style: “Diana Wynne Jones also nicely avoids some tropes I was bracing myself to bump up against, such as ‘a boy, his dog and their adventures’ (nope, this is the story of a girl and her dog!), and works in some excellent commentary on the real world backdrop of this story (1970′s England, with The Troubles running in the background of our human characters’ lives), and I can really see why people praise her for all the things she writes about children and the ways in which adults can betray them.”
Things mean a lot: “In this book, Diana Wynne Jones tells an adventurous, suspenseful and often humorous fantasy story, which, like the best fantasy, also deals with very real and very relevant human issues. The characters, their relationships and their emotions are very real, and they turn this tale into a complex one with more going on than you would guess at first glance. And at the same time, the story never ceases to be fun.”
Pornokitsch: “Ms. Jones’ willingness to show the grubby as well as the charming is what makes Dogsbody so emotionally poignant. Sirius and Kathleen’s elusive moments of joy stand out against the grind of their daily, impoverished existence. As a children’s book, some form of ultimate triumph is never in doubt, but the author’s willingness to show pain and disappointment gives Sirius’ quest all the more meaning. He’s not just battling the Machiavellian plots of interstellar beings, he’s wrestling with his own animal impulses as well (plus his guilt, his collar and one incredibly nasty woman).”
The cover I used for this post is not the cover of my actual copy; that cover looks like this!
And here’s the cover for the recent reissue from last April, which is kinda nifty:
There are a TON of covers for this book. TONS. Usually DWJ’s books have, like three or four? Not counting foreign editions? But I’ve counted at least eleven different covers for Dogsbody alone and I think that’s just US and UK editions. Lookit!
The author’s photo comes from Goodreads. It’s not mine! Book cover comes from Amazon. It’s not mine, either.
- note! Lots of DWJ’s books have been reprinted lately, including Dogsbody. Yay being back in print! ↩
- inspired by her real life? ↩
- And now that I think about it, am pretty sure there’s more animal abuse in other DWJ books, but I’ve just forgotten it because none of those stories were told from the POV of the animal being abused. Hm. ↩
- a Victorian maid in something written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, maybe ↩