The Dog Stars is not your usual type of novel, apocalyptic or otherwise. It is written almost as a stream of consciousness in sparse, broken, rarely punctuated prose. The life it portrays is that of Hig, a 40-year-old who was once a poet, husband, expectant father, living a busy life in the city, going to the cinema, shopping, reading, doing everything that you and I may do. He is now a widower, hunter, survivor, existing on the edges of a great wood, marooned in a hanger along with his Cessna plane (the Beast), his beloved dog Jasper and his survivalist neighbour Bangley.
More than 99% of the population are gone, wiped out by a flu and blood virus nine years before, and the earth itself is increasingly ravaged by global warming. Deer seem to cope with the heat but the rivers are emptying of their fish and the skies of birds just as the world has emptied itself of people. The few who survive are mostly just a step away from death, courtesy of the the persistent blood virus or the guns and axes of fellow survivalists.
Hig and Bangley carry on together in a type of marriage, not really communicating, but patrolling their property, hunting deer and, in Hig’s case, circling the area in his plane searching for danger approaching. That’s actually not what Hig is doing. What he’s really doing is searching for life – the signs of recovery, mourning his wife and unborn child but existing in each moment and finding a beauty in it, accompanied by his faithful dog, Jasper.
Hig is obsessed by a voice he once heard over the Cessna radio and when something happens to trigger a change he sets off to find its source, going beyond the point of no return, like an Amelia Earhart, and finds more than he can have expected.
The Dog Stars is beautifully done. Not just for the poetry of its prose but for the connection that it forges between the reader and Hig. He invites us in with the sparsest of language, each word carefully selected. They’re not all serious either. Hig has a sense of humour and a consciousness of how ridiculously tragic it has all become. Some of the things that Hig is driven to do are simply horrible and the regret that he suffers for his pragmatism is painful to observe.
Hig’s relationship with Jasper is both joyful and poignant. I must admit, my tears did flow. Even Bangley, ostensibly one of those survivalists who lives in a bunker and shoots anything that moves, is not everything he seems. Getting to know him a little better, as we and Hig do, is one of the rewards provided by The Dog Stars. There are other characters, too, that we come to know but I’ll leave those for you to discover.
The novel is not all reflection by any means. Throughout are tense scenes in which Hig is forced to fight for his life. There is brutality and gore. There is also the biggest contrast between this existence and Hig’s previous life, in which, for instance, he saw Avatar on a date.
The Dog Stars is one of those marmite novels. Its style is not for everyone. However, it was for me. I am a fan of apocalyptic novels but this one has a beauty and power to it that meant I read it in a single day. Despite the loss and the waste, it is sprinkled with hope, love, friendship and renewal. I miss it already. I’ll not forget Hig.