My usual response to reading any book by Diana Wynne Jones is: “how does she come up with this stuff?” This is swiftly followed by bewilderment (especially in the wake of Harry Potter) that nobody has ever adapted any of her work, despite the fact her stories would make for excellent on-screen entertainment.
Dogsbody (1975) is no exception. It begins by introducing the immortal Dog Star Sirius, who is in serious trouble with his peers. Accused of murder and theft, Sirius is sentenced to life on Earth as a mortal dog, where he is sentenced to die after his considerably shortened lifespan. He has only one chance at redemption: he can return to his celestial home only if he tracks down the mysterious stolen Zoi and returns it to the heavens.
But when he’s reborn as a puppy on Earth, he has only a vague inkling of who is truly is. Despite the importance of his mission, all he’s really interested in now is eating, sleeping, playing and enjoying the myriad of scents around him.
Then he’s found by a girl called Kathleen, and a greater awareness of the world awakens in him. Kathleen is an Irish girl sent to England while her father is in prison, and she’s not enjoying staying with her rather nasty extended family. But with her love and attention, Sirius begins to remember who he really is, and what he needs to get home — though that’s easier said than done when you’re a dog.
More than the amazingly unique premise of her story, more than the hilarious commentary on what it’s like to be a powerful immortal trapped in the body of a dog, more than the ongoing mystery of the Zoi that manages to incorporate figures from Welsh mythology, Wynne Jones’s gift is in examining the net of human relationships that Sirius finds himself embroiled in: Kathleen’s desperate longing for her father, her aunt Duffie’s resentment at her presence, her uncle’s jovial negligence, her cousins’ mix of bullying and camaraderie, and of course the love/hate attitudes of the household cats.
There is laughter here, but also heartbreak; great acts of kindness but also cruelty and neglect. Wynne Jones has always had a keen eye for depicting the intricacies of human nature, and Dogsbody is perhaps her best in this regard: all the more for exploring it through a dog’s eyes.
I mentioned Harry Potter above, and having read this book I’m more convinced than ever that Wynne Jones was a huge influence on J.K. Rowling, especially when it came to her quirky names. I could chalk down the name Sirius as a coincidence (after all, it IS the dog star) but that he shares his house with a cat called Remus? No way. And it’s a great shame that Wynne Jones never enjoyed the fame that Rowling does: her stories are just as imaginative, just as poignant and heartfelt, with a dollop of good humour and bittersweetness.
I loved this book when I was younger, even though I had ZERO context for why Kathleen’s Irish father would be in prison or why her English relatives might not be too keen on taking care of her. This is definitely one that I need to re-read as an adult. Thanks for reminding me of that with your excellent review, Rebecca!