The Dog Stars

It took the end of the world to make us kings for the day

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
There are rules that must be adhered to when writing a book review. Poignant is a word that is overused and has subsequently lost its meaning. Unfortunately, for The Dog Stars by Peter Heller there may not be a more suitable word.

Hig is alone, well almost. Nine years after a devastating flu wiped out most of the human race, he is left with Jasper his dog and Bangley a lunatic survivalist on a desolate airstrip he calls home. While Bangley revels in this dangerous new world, Hig dislikes the killing and the constant fight and threat to his survival. Instead, he flies with his dog in his Cessna plane, fishes and hunts elk, all the while craving something more. Tortured by a transmission he heard over the radio a few years back, he sets off, against better judgement, on a dangerous journey to find other survivors.

Told from Hig’s point of view, this is a charming story of friendship, man’s best friend and a mid-life crisis. After the death of his wife, he is a broken man and this is reflected in the narrative through subdued anger and moments of claustrophobic depression. This is nicely offset with the freedom of flight and the vast rolling landscapes that echo his loneliness. Studded with tense action packed scenes that we come to expect in post-apocalyptic books, the pace is expertly measured. The author does a great job in speeding up and slowing down the story which teases the reader, constantly leaving them wanting more. All the characters are wonderfully drawn, including Bangley who is terrifying yet softened by vulnerability hidden behind bloodlust and a very dry sense of humour. Even the dog has personality. The only problem was that Hig cries a little too much, however, if roles were reversed, I guess I would be more of a wreck than he.

In the blurb, The Dog Stars has been compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy but with hope. After reading the book, the similarity begins and ends with the language. Like The Road, there is nothing to mark speech within the prose. The lack of resources and human contact coupled with the constant struggle to survive is enhanced by the economy of the language. The ‘streams of consciousness’ stop and start, move back and forward in time, yet remain rich, wonderfully descriptive and very intimate. In this way, the author manages successfully to capture beauty in the devastation of both Hig and the landscape around him. If The Road is dark and grey, this book is bursting with colour. The natural world is so vivid it could be a scene from an Attenborough documentary.

The sign of a good book is not how quickly it is read and with how much gusto, but the experience and emotion that is left behind. This is a novel that will stay with the reader long after it has been finished, it really does pack an emotional punch. I think I am grown up enough to admit that there were moments where my heart was pounding and I was close to tears reading The Dog Stars. This has what it takes to be a classic. The story is heavily laden with grief and a longing for a world that is long past, however, in spite of this, there is hope; a human story that will not date or become old fashioned. Most post-apocalyptic fiction has a warning, a message telling us to be careful and watch our step but here we get explore what is really worth living for; be it adventure, companionship or even a can of Coke. Hubris is long gone and we see don’t just see the worst of man but the best. Hig is everything we want and should aspire to be when the end of days comes.

Peter Heller is an award winning adventure writer and author of four non-fiction books. He was born and raised in New York and currently lives in Denver. This is his first foray into fiction and given the high standard of this debut, we are really looking forward to seeing what comes next. Peter has a website.

The Dog Stars is published by Headline, and is available with free delivery from The Book Depository and on the high street from Blackwell and all good book stores.

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