Only recently did I start reading Diana Wynne Jones' work. For some unknown reason I missed out on reading her books when younger; which is a shame as I think I would have enjoyed them then just as much as I do now.
Dogsbody is not a book I chose by browsing. The decision to buy it was because John Scalzi, the science-fiction writer, wrote about it on his blog (where he posted the sad news that Diana Wynne Jones had passed away on 26th March 2011). I'm very glad Mr. Scalzi did mention Dogsbody because it is a wonderful book. It is not without some flaws. This might well be because it's one of her earlier published books.
The opening scene has an influence of Greek mythology. The galactic stars are holding a court case for one of their number, Sirius, the Dog Star. All the stars, and planetary bodies, have their own characters in this story. Sirius is hot tempered and, seemingly, quite violent in temperament.
Being thrown into the midst of this galactic scale of justice is also a little confusing at first. It's difficult to get to grips with what sort of beings these are. In terms of characterisation it reminded me strongly of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics.
Sirius receives an archaic punishment by being re-born, in an instant, as a puppy on Earth. His task is to find an extremely powerful object called a Zoi, if he fails he will live and die as an earthly creature. The idea of what a Zoi is appears a bit vague. I wasn't entirely sure whether it was a mechanism, sentient being or both.
The scenes from Sirius' early life are rather bleak. Sirius has some luck though and he finds his way to Kathleen, a young girl who very much wants to protect him. With the introduction of Kathleen, and the family she lives with, the story takes more of a turn to fairytale structure. The Duffield family has those recognisable characters of wicked stepmother, kind but disinterested father, bullying elder brother and the younger, more sensitive son. Some of the characters are hard to get a grip on though. Why is Mrs Duffield so unrelentingly bad? What it is that motivates her extreme anger in all aspects? This remains a mystery to me. The brothers and the father have more variety in their reactions over time. You can see the writer's emerging love of playing with stereotypes and fantasy tropes.
Kathleen can also prove problematic. She is hopelessly oppressed and lonely until Sirius arrives in her life. Sympathetic as her character is; she can appear a bit too perfect in her passiveness until towards the end of the book. There are many interesting elements here though. As another reviewer mentions; the period setting of the book does include mentions of the Troubles (the long period of warfare in Northern Ireland). References to Kathleen's father are subtly and intelligently written. It is never made clear exactly what he has done or whether he is linked to either side of the paramilitary organisations that flourished then. The level of casual racism and bullying towards Kathleen (and Irish people in general) is a realistic and unsettling touch.
Sirius' story is truly charming though. The scenes of his domestic life as a dog, how he deals with the family cats, which is one of my favourite things in the whole book, how he learns about the wider world are so absorbing and humorous to read. Without giving spoilers, I also loved how DWJ decided to end the book. It could have so easily slipped into a standard fairytale ending in the hands of a lesser writer.
One final point for the HarperCollins 2010 paperback edition; the Tim Stevens' drawing used for each chapter heading is definitely not the best of his work. This might be down to poor print reproduction but it took until the end of the book to roughly guess what on earth the black, blobby drawing was of and I'm not entirely sure even now.