Friday, March 18, 2022

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C.A. Fletcher

Orbit, ISBN 9780316449472, April 2019

Griz's family lives on a little island in the Outer Hebrides, on a mostly depopulated Earth. Over a century before, something unknown, but referred to as the Gelding, caused the human reproduction rate to plummet to almost nothing. Griz's ancestors were among those who, as the population crashed, moved to remote areas where they wouldn't meet other people accidentally. The family consists of Griz, Griz's parents, and brother and sister Ferg and Bar. There was another sister, Joy, not much older than Griz, who is the youngest..Griz tells us the heartbreaking story of his sister Joy chasing a kite that got loose, and accidentally tumbling over the cliff.

Between the rocks and the powerful surf, she couldn't survive, and they could never recover her body.

One day, a ship with red sails arrives in their little harbor, carrying a man called Brand, who says he wants to trade. Brand, we soon learn, is a charmer, a storyteller, a liar, and a thief.

This is where our story really starts, and it's a story told entirely, with one small exception near the end, from Griz's viewpoint, in a notebook that he carries with him. 

Brand adds color, fun, and a little news to the day, because strangers showing up is the only way to learn of what's happening away from their own island and their near neighbors, the Lewismen, on a nearby island. They all like Brand, and there is much talk about trading--but one of the things Brand wants to trade for is one of Griz's own two dogs, two small terriers called Jip and Jess. Brand wants Jess, because Jess is female, and dogs Gmuch as humans have dramatically collapsed in numbers. Griz says no. Everyone else says Jess is Griz's, and Griz won't give her up, ever.

Brand laughs it off.

Brand is invited to join them for dinner, and he brings his own contribution, something they've never had before, that he picked up in Spain--marmalade. They all eat and enjoy it, but Griz broke a tooth the day before, and the sweetness is too much for that broken tooth. Griz eats less than anyone else. Griz wakes up before everyone else, too--to find Brand is leaving, and all of Griz's family is sleeping very very deeply. He struggles to wake them, fearing they may not, and when his father is awake, they discover how much Brand has stolen, including all the fish they would have been both eating and trading in the coming weeks.

And Jess. Jip is still present, but Jess is gone. And Griz sees Brand's red sails just about to disappear over the horizon. Jip and Griz quickly set off in the sailboat Sweethope, Griz's own boat, following Brand.

What follows is a hard chase, with stops at places Griz never knew of, or had only read of in books gathered from "viking" abandoned towns and scattered abandoned buildings. There are several encounters with Brand, who proves to be in some ways cultured and educated, and who keeps insisting that Jess is his because he stole her, that he's not a monster, and that Griz, with no trace of beard at all, is obviously too young to be pursuing him, and needs to turn around and go home. He also tells Griz, repeatedly, that he's not a monster, a claim that Griz has good reason to doubt.

Griz continues the pursuit, and learns a great deal about the way the world has changed. Harrowing encounters included an encounter with wild pigs, that he wouldn't have survived except for the chance arrival of a French woman who says her name is "John Dark," or something that sounds like that. Griz does mention in passing, in the notebook he carries, that that's not what she really said, but what she really said was no more her real name than "John Dark," but it was a good name and what she chose to be called.
We see a depopulated England, and life (other than human) prevailing, and find both terrible and wonderful things, such as the Homely House. There are disturbing remnants of how people chose to face the end of their world, and some of the ways people are choosing to survive are disturbing too.

All along the way, there are secrets to be discovered, and secrets to be revealed. including Griz's own. Griz also finds a lot to think about, how dogs have been with humans from the beginning, and were betrayed by humans in the end. We learn about the Freemen, who apparently maintained underground, electronic brains--as long as possible, until the last people who knew how died. And now, at least some of the Freeman are spreading la peste, the plague, the actual plague.

I mentioned that Griz has a secret, but there's also another, major, secret, very important to Griz, that needs to be discovered.

This was a slow read for me, because it's a post-apocalyptic novel, of exactly the kind I don't enjoy nearly so much as when I was a teenager living through the Cold War. (Okay, yes, the Cold War may be back again, but I no longer want to focus on the aftermath of it going hot in some way when I'm reading for leisure.) But this one was recommended by a friend, whose judgment on this I trust, and the trust was not misplaced. Even though I took a few breaks, I kept returning to it, because, yes, it's worth it.

Also, all dogs encountered in the course of the book are alive and well at the end. Yes, that's something I require, to consider a book readable.


I bought this book.

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