The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (book review).

When all else fails, there’s always hope. It can keep a man alive when the world around him is crumbling. Wise words and ones that Peter Heller seems to have heeded when writing ‘The Dog Stars’.

The Dog Stars

Set in an apocalyptic world where the majority of the population has been wiped out by a super flu, Hig is a man forced to survive by any means necessary.

A pilot by trade, his only company is the paranoid Bangley, a survivalist who welcomes the fall of civilisation, and Jasper, his loyal and loving dog, who becomes his main outlet and source for love and affection.

The two men are forced into what is basically a marriage of convenience to survive. Hig has the transport and can cook, while Bangley protects them from marauding gangs out to steal their food.

Hig is left alone with his thoughts and we view the story through his eyes and experiences. The only time he is truly happy is when he flies his Cessna plane in search of supplies with Jasper by his side.

When a radio message comes through to him, Hig decides to fly beyond the point of no return in search of the person who sent it out. He’s not sure what he’ll find but he has to try.

The primary messages of ‘The Dog Stars’ are survival and hope. Hig, who admits that he isn’t the smartest and ruthless individual, has been forced to work harder and become smarter to survive.

He’s still clinging onto the old world but that world has gone. Even though his wife succumbed to illness long ago, he keeps going but for no discernible reason. He’s like a shark, if he stops swimming he’ll die and perseveres purely out of instinct.

Then there’s the hope. Despite losing his old life and being forced to eke out an existence, he believes there’s something else left in this world for him. Something important, something worth fighting for.

As we see Hig through his own eyes and how he thinks others see him, it’s quite tricky to get a read on him. He’s his own worst critic, believing himself to be slow on the uptake and a liability to Bangley, when in reality he’s quite competent, especially when forced to protect himself in a tricky situation.

The constant flow of text with disjointed punctuation to convey Hig’s breathless, rambling thoughts can be a little jarring at first but after a few pages, the reader is firmly inside his head and his every idea flows nicely.

When on his journey further than he has ever been before, he stumbles upon something amazing that perhaps echoes his own life. To go into more detail would spoil the surprise but it brings us the threat of both happiness and despair and certainly livens up the third act.

The book will invite comparisons with ‘The Road’ but that’s slightly unfair to ‘The Dog Stars’. There is a small sense of a world still turning, especially with Hig being able to get his hands on fuel for his plane, food for his group and nearby families and the sense of an everyday life, no matter how depressing it may be. Although we may never get to see it, there is some light in this dark world and who knows if every other country is undergoing the same epidemic.

Heller knows how to take the reader on an emotional journey without leaving you too drained. There are scenes that will leave you with tears welling in your eyes and others that make you afraid to turn to the next page in fear of what may come next. But in the end, you will keep turning those pages. You’ll find yourself keeping going on to see how this intriguing character and tale will end.

Aidan Fortune

March 2014

(pub: Headline. 422 page small hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7553-9259-9

pub: Headline. 407 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7553-9262-9)

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