Jones, Diana: Dogsbody

I’ve been vaguely meaning to read Diana Wynne Jones’s Dogsbody for some time. Recently I saw a passing mention of it just before I was going to the library and just after I’d finished re-reading A Night in the Lonesome October. Hey, they’re both fantasy novels narrated by dogs, right? (Entities in dog form, at least.)

It turns out that even though A Night in the Lonesome October is about an attempt to open this world to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, as told by Jack the Ripper’s dog, it is still lighter than Dogsbody.

Some of this darkness is present from the beginning, in which the occupant of the star Sirius is wrongfully convicted of murder and condemmed to live and die in a mortal body, unless he can find a MacGuffin. Not long after his birth, his mother’s owner tries to drown him and his littermates. He’s rescued by a girl named Kathleen and raised by her—as best she can, considering that she is the despised Irish relative-by-marriage of a horrible English woman who makes her do all the housework and starves Sirius.

I know, cheerful, right? But after that, the book focuses on Sirius getting the hang of being a dog (he only dimly remembers his prior existence), so the nastiness is buffered by this and by the prose style:

 . . . it came to him what it was he really wanted to chew. The ideal thing. With a little ticker-tack of claws, he crept to the door and up the stairs. He nosed open the door of the main bedroom without difficulty and, with a little more trouble, succeeded in opening the wardrobe too. Inside were shoes—long large leather shoes, with laces and thick chewable soles. Sirius selected the juiciest and took it under the bed to enjoy in peace.

The thunderous voice found him there and chased him around the house with a walking stick. Duffie spoke long and coldly. Kathleen wept. Robin tried to explain about teething. Basil jeered. And throughout, Tibbles sat thoughtfully on the sideboard, giving the inside of her left front leg little hasty licks, like a cat seized with an idea. Sirius saw her. To show his contempt and to soothe his feelings, he went into the kitchen and ate the cats’ supper. Then he lay down glumly to gnaw the unsatisfactory rubber thing Kathleen had bought him.

(The book is actually in omniscient, and I found its shifts to other characters’ points-of-view rather distracting, since I had been attributing the prose style to Sirius’s nature.)

As Sirius’s new body grows, he remembers more, and the plot starts happening . . . until the ending, which is like getting hit in the face out of nowhere. Some of this reaction is undoubtedly the cognitive dissonance caused by reading this right after A Night in the Lonesome October. Even putting that aside as best I can, though, I don’t feel that I understand the reasons for the ending—not the character motivations, but why the book went in that direction. (The one thematic explanation that comes to mind seems an odd fit for the mythology.) And so I am left baffled and somewhat bruised.

Jones’s books are very hit-or-miss for me in ways that defy categorization, and I think in the end I’m just not the right reader for this book.

I’m putting a spoiler post to discuss the ending over on LiveJournal, because it’s a better audience for it.

6 Comments

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  1. I find DWJ’s endings are often very abrupt, too, which is disappointing. (Although how disappointed I am varies from book to book – sometimes very little, sometimes quite a lot.)

  2. I adore the ending of _Deep Secret_–the way it manages its shifts is a constant source of amazement to me. I was just kinda enh about her other books for no real reason that I remember now.

  3. Oh, I love this book! Since I was a kid. But I have tried to read several others of Jones’, and none have hit the mark for me.

  4. DWJ likes to surprise you with the ending, which I appreciate, but she doesn’t set the ending up well enough in every book. Dogsbody is definitely an example of that. But when she does get it right it works very well – in addition to Deep Secret, I’m thinking of Hexwood, The Time of the Ghost, etc.

  5. Jeane: she really seems to be that kind of author.
    Dan, yes, I think that for all that _Deep Secret_ goes mythic at the end, you know that the mythic turn is coming because you’ve seen the external trappings of it already.

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