The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars is a post-apocalyptic novel set nine years after life on earth was almost entirely wiped out by a flu-like illness. Among the few survivors is Hig, a pilot from Colorado who lost his beloved wife Melissa to the disease and has been left alone with his dog Jasper and his Cessna plane. He spends a lot of his time flying over the mountains surveying the area and searching for food for himself and his nearest neighbour, Bangley, a tough, aggressive man who is obsessed with guns and killing.

Under normal circumstances, Hig and Bangley would have had little in common, but to survive in this new world they have decided to work together to protect the abandoned airport compound they both call home. Then one day Hig hears a voice on his radio and is intrigued. He wants to find out who else might be out there, but there’s one big problem – if he flies too far he might not have enough fuel to get back…

I have read very few novels in this genre so The Dog Stars was not the type of book I would normally choose to read and at first I didn’t think I was going to like it, especially when I discovered it was written in an unusual, disjointed, almost stream-of-consciousness style. I expected to pick up the book, read a few pages then put it down again – so I was surprised to find how completely I was drawn into Hig’s world and although I didn’t love the book it was certainly an interesting experience.

The writing style is very different and it took me a while to get used to it. The sentences are short and often incomplete and don’t seem to follow the normal rules of grammar or punctuation. I usually hate this kind of experimental writing and often I can’t see any reason for it, but with this book it did seem to suit the story and I think I do understand why the author chose to write it in this way. I can accept that a man spending most of his time alone with only his dog for company, rarely interacting with other humans, may eventually begin to think differently; another possibility is that Hig’s command of language has been affected by the illness he suffered from (and was lucky enough to recover from, unlike most of the population). Either way, Hig’s story probably wouldn’t have been nearly as effective or memorable if it had been written in normal prose. However, it did make the book much more challenging to read than it would otherwise have been!

I found it depressing that almost all of the other characters who appear in the book are so mindlessly brutal and violent. If you’re living in isolation and come across another survivor, why not talk to them and see if you can help each other, instead of immediately attacking them or stealing from them without even trying to make contact first? I realise that people were competing for dwindling resources and worried about running out of food, but it was hard for me to understand their behaviour. It could be realistic, I suppose, but it seemed such a sad and pessimistic outlook. That’s why I liked Hig, who even in this lonely, desolate world manages to retain some of his compassion and humanity. He kills when he needs to in order to protect himself or when he is threatened by intruders, but he doesn’t take the pleasure in it that Bangley does. He also pays regular visits to some families of Mennonites nearby who have become infected with the disease, and takes them food and supplies.

We are only given brief descriptions of how the flu and the blood disease that followed led to the destruction of most of the world’s population – I would have liked to have learned more about what happened, but that was not the focus of the novel. Instead this is a story about people trying to survive in the wilderness that remains. And in the end, the novel does take a more positive, optimistic view and leaves us feeling more confident that there might still be hope for the human race.

The Dog Stars has been compared to The Road by Cormac McCarthy which I haven’t read so can’t comment on how similar or different they are. With my very limited knowledge of dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction I would recommend that fans of the genre give this one a try, but I think it was a bit too far out of my comfort zone for me!

I received a copy of The Dog Stars from Headline for review

5 thoughts on “The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

  1. Book Nympho says:

    I’ve been hearing good things about this book and I actually did start it. But coming off another post-apocalyptic type book it was just too depressing for me and I had to put it down for now. That being said, I didn’t get that far in and wasn’t hooked. The writing style does take some getting used to and so I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again and finish it. I was also skeptical about The Road but did read it and didn’t hate it although it’s hard to describe a book like that as enjoyable because of the difficult subject material. Still, I’d recommend The Road as it’s very powerful. You’d definitely have to be in the right mood to read it though.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    I have read The Road and while I found the story fascinating on the whole the book was too depressing for me. So I can imagine this book wouldn’t be something I’d give a go for that reason. Always good to step out of one’s comfort zone now and again though.

  3. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    I like post-apocalyptic stories if they are well written. You must be more of an optimist than me because I do think that as soon as civilisation collapsed, violence and selfishness would be the norm. I think I might give this one a try.

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