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A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

May 15, 2020

IMG_3952Last year I came home with the usual pile of books from ICFA and left some of them stuck into bookshelves around the house because I don’t have a special shelf for books I haven’t read yet. Somehow A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C.A. Fletcher got shoved out of the way and I didn’t think about it again until I read Heather’s review at Froodian Slip and went in search of my copy (which turns out to consist of uncorrected page proofs, but I’m going to quote from it anyway to show you how great this book is). The only reason I’m not kicking myself for not reading it sooner is that now is the perfect time to read it.

The worldbuilding is one of the best things about A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World. No one knows what caused the “end of the world” although the narrator, Griz, has heard “as many theories as there were suddenly childless people—a burst of cosmic rays, a chemical weapon gone astray, bio-terror, pollution (you lot did make a mess of your world), some kind of genetic mutation passed by a space virus or even angry gods in pick-your-own-flavour for those who had a religion. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ slowly became less important as people got used to the ‘what’, and realized the big final ‘when’ was heading towards them like a storm front that not even the fastest, the richest, the cleverest or the most powerful were going to be able to outrun. The world—the human part of it—had been gelded or maybe turned barren—perhaps both—and people just stopped having kids. That’s all it took.” Griz is an outlier, explaining that “maybe 0.0001 per cent of the world population somehow escaped the Gelding.”

The first-person narration is masterful and this becomes more apparent the farther you read. The narrator explains that Griz is “not my real name. I have a fancier one, but it’s the one I’ve been called forever. They said I used to whine and grizzle when I was a baby.” It seems like the reader knows everything that the narrator knows despite the warnings we get about how the family–consisting of “my parents, my brother and sister, Ferg and Bar. And the dogs of course. My two are Jip and Jess”—has learned to hold their cards very close to their chests. Despite the fact that we learn that “Jess is a rarity, because dog litters seem to be all male nowadays,” we’re never told how many other dogs there might be, and we see that when the family gets a rare visitor, Ferg remains hidden in case there’s trouble. And there is trouble when the visitor drugs everyone and sails away with the dog Jess.

The island where Griz lives is “called Mingulay. That’s what it was called when you were alive. It’s off the Atlantic coast of what used to be Scotland. There’s nothing to the west of it but ocean and then America and we’re pretty sure that’s gone.” We get the sense that there’s lots of dangers: “to the north there’s Paabay and Sanday, low islands where we graze our sheep and pasture the horses. North of them is the larger island called Barra but we don’t land there, which is a shame as it has lots of large houses and things, but we never set foot on it because something happened and it’s bad land….But Dad says if you set foot on Barra now you get something much worse than an itch, and because it’s what killed his parents, we don’t go….North-east of us are a long low string of islands called the Uists, and Eriskay, which are luckier places, and we go there a lot.”

What the narrator knows is a mixture of what Griz has been told, what is in the old books Griz has access to, and what Griz can surmise to fill in the gaps. Griz calls “Dad’s obsession with technical manuals and science books ‘Liebowitzing’, after one called A Canticle for Liebowitz about monks in a devastated far future trying to reconstruct your whole world from an electrical manual found in the desert.” When something is true, Griz asserts that and adds “that’s history, and I know it not just because it was one of Dad’s favourite stories, but because I read it, not once, but in many of the books we have.”

I admired one of the incidental but interesting things Griz says about books:
“When I was little I had a stash of old illustrated magazines about superheroes. I loved them for a bit, because they were so bright and drawn with a real joy for movement and design, some so vididly that the people seemed to be about to burst out of the page and into my world. They tended to walk around in really tight clothes and however much the writers tried to hide the fact, and however much they appeared to fret about what to do, all the stories ended up in a huge fight. Dad said they were written for younger boys really. I liked them despite that, until I didn’t. And when I realized I didn’t I also knew that it was because everyting was always a set-up for a punch-up. As if the only way you could solve a problem was by hitting it. Maybe your world liked fighting so much that it thought it had to prepare kids for that by telling them those kind of stories. Or maybe it was the other way round and your world liked fighting because those were the stories you were given when your minds were young.”

The adventures Griz has while pursuing the man who stole Jess include meeting a French woman who calls herself “John Dark. Even though that wasn’t her real name, only what it sounded like. And the name it sounded like wasn’t really her name either, I discovered. It was a joke.” Griz and John Dark use a French/English dictionary to communicate with each other, and John tells Griz that she and her horses used a tunnel to get to England. Griz says “I didn’t believe her, because even if there had been a tunnel under the sea, I’m sure it would have filled with water after a hundred years or so. And that’s assuming the rising sea water hadn’t submerged the entrances and filled it that way….I didn’t mind that she was lying. I hadn’t quite told her exactly where I was from either.”

Several of the adventures entail watching the characters encounter things that Griz can’t understand but the reader knows more about. For example, John Dark comes from “between what used to be France and Switzerland” and says to Griz, in her broken English, that
“there was a big circle, underground, and it was said to be full of a brain. That seemed wrong, so after some back and forth with the dictionary we agreed that by brain she meant machines, or a computer. She had never seen them as they were locked away in a circular tunnel a hundred metres under the ground, but they must be long dead as there was no electricity to wake them up and make them remember things. Her father’s father’s father had gone down into the rock and seen the endless curve with one of the last Freemen. He had said it hummed. And then the Freemen had turned off the lights and it had stopped humming and they had left it and locked the entrance as they went.
It was a story her family told, that they had come here when the last of the old people who worked on the big underground machines were very old, and had helped them until they were gone. Those old people were Freemen. They had worked until they died, trying to make the underground ring remember so much about what humans had discovered so that it became human too.”
Griz says that “it made no sense then. It makes less sense now even though I know a little more about the Freemen and the scientist who they named themselves after.” The reader, of course, understands that this is a story about what happened at CERN with the people who worked at the Large Hadron Collider.

That Griz is a reader and sees many things in terms of stories will make most readers identify with the character. I particularly like the part of this book where Griz thinks about The Hobbit:
“I wondered if the man who wrote about the hobbit had ridden through the greenwood like this. Despite the bird noise it was a peaceful place that lulled you. Without the compass it would have been easy to get lost. It was a maze without walls, just tree-trunks and bushes, and animal tracks beaten through them. John Dark with her hood up and the grey hair escaping it, astride a similarly grey horse had, from the back, something a bit wizardish about her, and it was easy to imagine there were other eyes in the forest watching us from behind a screen of leaves or brambles. It was even easy to imagine the bigger trees looking down on us and noticing us passing. I thought a lot about that book as we wove east among the oaks and beeches, and that is certainly why I called the house we ended up taking refuge in the homely house, because that was the name of the house the travelers in the story made a much needed halt in. And the homely house we found ourselves in did, in its way, contain a kind of magic, though the magic was, in truth, just the kindness of long dead people, not immortal elves.”

There’s a twist at the end of this book and then at least three happy endings. The dog does not die. I loved it that there were so many happy endings even though so many dark things happen during Griz’s adventures, and that some of the happiest news is related starting with the sentence “We weren’t able to bury John Dark as I’d planned to.” It’s a fun story and conveys a peculiar kind of optimism during tough times.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2020 9:04 am

    Oh, this sounds so very tempting that I had to skim through quickly so as to relish it all for myself. Thanks for drawing attention to it!

    • May 19, 2020 12:28 pm

      It definitely deserves more attention and more readers.

  2. May 15, 2020 10:31 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The world building was my favorite part.

  3. May 16, 2020 5:40 am

    I’m relieved to know the dog doesn’t die. As soon as one appears in a story my heart sinks…

    • May 19, 2020 12:27 pm

      Oh yes. I had to put that in there, as it’s more reassurance than spoiler.

  4. May 19, 2020 12:25 pm

    Ah, another review of yours that has me plucking something from my shelves. Thank you!

    • May 19, 2020 12:26 pm

      My pleasure. I’m just passing it on, as I plucked it from my shelves after reading Heather’s review!

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