I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book (a gift from one of my boys) but I was surprised and delighted. With an engaging hero, a unique voice, a fast-paced plot and two huge plot twists at the end that I did not see coming, this novel is a fantastic read: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World (Orbit Books 2019) by C.A. Fletcher.
A sort of YA dystopian hero’s journey, the book is set in the not too distant future, but enough years ahead that a phenomenon known as the Gelding has occurred, with the result that of the seven billion people on the planet, only 0.0001 percent of them (the ‘outliers’) are able to reproduce. Consequently, only 7000 people are left on the planet, because gradually all of the other billions have aged and died. But these are the generalities that we learn bit by bit. First of all, we are introduced to Griz, a young boy who lives with his family by the sea in a self-sufficient, subsistence lifestyle. Many of the things that we now take for granted – the internet, computers, electricity, transportation infrastructure, medicines – all have been abandoned as there were not enough people left to build, produce or maintain them; the buildings have become degraded and the vegetation has incrementally grown over most of what we would now recognise as evidence of human habitation. The sea has also risen and the coastlines are forever changed. Griz and his family know all about our present world (his past) through books, although his more recent past (the time between now and when most of the humans died) has not been recorded, as there was nobody left to print and publish a record of events. So he knows what life might have been like 150 years earlier, but has only oral history for the last few generations of his ancestors. It is an intriguing and unusual dystopian vision and one quite different to any I have encountered before.
The story begins when Griz’s family has an unexpected visitor, at a time when all strangers are rare. This man steals Griz’s dog, Jess, and that’s when the adventure begins. In this future time, dogs are still the faithful helpmate to humans as they are today, and to lose a valuable dog is a terrible thing. Young Griz sets off to follow the stranger and his boat, taking his other dog Jip, to rescue Jess and bring her home. Such a simple premise and yet the author portrays the subsequent journey with poignancy, surprise, emotional engagement, uncertainty and risk; we become deeply attached to Griz and care very much about his welfare and his fate, and the circumstances of those he encounters along the way.
I loved so much about this book. But the two things I REALLY loved were: firstly, the surprise twists at the end, which were completely unexpected, and had me wanting to reread the book again from the start. These plot points reframed the whole story, causing me to rethink it in a different way and from a different perspective. The second thing I enjoyed was the unique voice – the story is narrated by Griz in the first person, and we see everything through his eyes, and encounter the narrative unfolding from his perspective. There is such humour in him, such a tender and courageous spirit, and such a feisty and determined nature. And the author has a wonderful way of using Griz to narrate the dangerous and epic tale with casual familiarity and self-deprecation; we can almost see Griz face-palming his forehead into his hand as he relates yet another stupid decision he made, yet another ill-thought out choice, or another bad judgment. He is philosophical and the narrative is peppered with gems of wisdom such as ‘Ends happen fast, and often arrive before you’ve been warned they’re coming’ or ‘Which shows that even a question can be a lie if asked in the right way’ or ‘Solitude is its own kind of madness. Like hope itself’ or ‘Not everything sweet is good for you’ or ‘Vengeance is the same in both languages’ or ‘I had shot the albatross’. We travel with him as he travails the landscape in pursuit of his dog and the man who stole her, we hold our breath as he faces adversity time and again, and as bad luck or ill-conceived plans lead him astray. But he is trusting and good and honourable, despite also being savvy and desperate. This book has been described as unputdownable, engrossing and enthralling. In a Note on Spoilers at the beginning of the novel, the author says that ‘It’d be a kindness to other readers…if the discoveries made as you follow Griz’s journey into the ruins of our world remained a bit of a secret between us…’ and I couldn’t agree more. This is a treasure best discovered on your own journey. If you have a teenager aged about 12 and up, I would highly recommend this novel. And if you are an adult, you will also enjoy this compelling and powerful tale of survival, bravery, optimism and ingenuity, against the odds, in a changed world.