A Boy and His Dog at the end of the World by C.A. Fletcher
A Boy and His Dog at the end of the World (2019), by C.A. Fletcher (aka Charlie Fletcher) bears no small resemblance to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, which, it turns out, is not a bad thing. Both are quiet, elegiac stories set in a post-apocalyptic world and focused on a main character who sets out with his faithful dog on a journey that becomes less about finding what is sought and more about learning about oneself. Both had me unsure at the start if I’d finish, and both won me over, though Fletcher somewhat less fully than Heller. If you’re looking for a typical post-apocalyptic story with chase scenes, lots of violence, and running battles against regressed, barbaric people, this is not the novel for you. If you’re a patient reader who doesn’t mind a slow, quiet stroll through a land being reclaimed by nature, lots of ruminating, and a few human interactions along the way, then this might be just the sort of book you’re looking for.
The novel is narrated by young Griz, who lives with his small family on an island off the coast of Scotland some decades after “The Gelding,” a time when all but .0001 percent of the human population died off due to a plague that turned nearly everyone sterile. Life is difficult (a sister, Joy, died years ago tumbling off a cliff, and their mother, in her grief, fell and is permanently brain-damaged) but bearable and they’re making do, until a trader arrives one day and steals one of Griz’s dogs (dogs, like people, have become incredibly rare). Without much forethought, Griz leaps into a boat and gives chase, thus precipitating a lengthy journey across sea and land into a world nearly (but not completely) void of humans, but not their remains.
That near-total emptiness is one reason for the quiet nature of A Boy and His Dog at the end of the World, as it means that just based on pure math, Griz isn’t going to encounter many people, a mere handful by the end and widely scattered across the book’s pages. Instead, we get lots of time inside Griz’s head, either through internal monologue, occasional “conversation” with the dog Jip (the other of the pair that included Jess, the stolen one), and a journal Griz keeps that is addressed to a person in a photograph discovered when his family was off “a-Viking” (scavenging in old houses). In fact, this journal is the book we’re reading.
The novel is filled with descriptions of a past slowly disappearing under a nature indifferent to humanity’s disappearing or being let go by people who no longer have the leisure or desire to care about the same things people once did. Knick-knacks, for instance, as Griz notes early on:
Ornaments. Trophies. Mementoes. Things that meant something to people once, meant enough that they’d make a space for them and display them, something to see every day. We don’t really have ornaments, or the time for mementoes. Everything we do is about surviving, moving forward, keeping going. No time for relics or souvenirs.
Griz, though, is different, is “fascinated” by these things, and by lots of other things as well. “Too many questions,” is a complaint Griz’s father often has, though in a good-natured way. That curiosity and fascination makes Griz a more engaging character, and also offers up some good excuses for some risky decisions so moments of danger or tension feel organic to the character rather than forced. It also means Griz has a good eye, and so again, the level of elegiac detail (as when he wanders through an old amusement park or an old church) makes some sense where otherwise it might feel a bit preciously advanced for such a young person. Griz’s love of reading also goes a good way toward explain the narrator’s language skills and “older” sounding voice: “I know you can’t be nostalgic for something never actually knew, but it was that kind of longing the books often woke in me.” As a cute little aside to the type of audience probably reading this book, Griz’s favorite are fantasy/sci-fi stories, in particular post-apocalyptic fiction, and so we get references to, among others, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Day of the Triffids, and The Road.
All that said, as noted I wasn’t sure at the start if I’d finish A Boy and His Dog at the end of the World because the narration felt more than a little flat to me. It’s hard to pull off an extended story without much human interaction, so that it’s almost wholly a first-person summary of “what I did this day, and then this day, and then this day,” and the language wasn’t quite lyrical enough, or startling enough to pull it off entirely. Fletcher breaks the extended monologue up with some challenges and tense moments — encounters with wild animals, a sense of being watched, dangerous buildings — but I confess even as someone who enjoys a quiet, character-driven story I was feeling mighty impatient by about 40% in. Luckily, it was shortly after that point that another character enters the story, providing a lengthy break from being solely in Griz’s head.
I don’t want to say much more about events as it would too easy to spoil the novel. A few twists in the novel, one of which I saw coming and one I feared coming, I’d have rather done without. And the ending didn’t fully work for me, either. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if all three of those aspects are some readers’ favorite moments, so mileage may vary. Same with the literary references, which came a bit too frequently and too on point for me.
I will say Griz’s voice did eventually win me over as I fell into its rhythm. I don’t know that there’s a lot new here in the bittersweet melancholy that is often part and parcel of a post-apocalyptic depiction of a world gone by, and I still wished for a bit richer style, but in its muted, sometimes-lyrical repetition, there’s a cumulative impact to A Boy and His Dog at the end of the World that has its own power and is, by itself, worth reading the book for. As are the themes of loyalty and love, of isolation and connection, of loss and forgiveness and of what “humanity” means in a world almost devoid of humans. Not for action fans, but recommended for those who enjoy slowly unfolding stories that whisper more than they shout.