Melissa McShane's Reviews > Dogsbody

Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
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Apr 12, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: own, fantasy, young-adult, modern-setting-fantasy, favorites
Read in March, 2012

I didn't find out what a "dogsbody" was (a drudge or menial worker, in case you didn't know either) until years after I'd read this book, so the double meaning passed me by--Sirius being in the body of a dog/Sirius losing his position of power to become a humble and powerless creature. Fortunately, it doesn't matter at all. This is a delightful story on so many levels.

Since Sirius the luminary star-denizen doesn't have any more idea about Earth life or humans than Sirius the abandoned puppy does, everything he learns is filtered through the dog's perceptions. This is something DWJ is amazing at, being able to look at some ordinary thing like a telephone cord and describe it the way someone would who'd not only never seen a telephone cord before, but didn't even understand the concept of telephones. (It just occurred to me that kids today might not know what a telephone cord is either. Now I feel old.) I love working out what Sirius is seeing. I also like the path Sirius takes from being an arrogant, powerful being with anger management issues to becoming someone who cares about others and puts their needs first. It could all be down to how very helpless he is, even when he's a full-grown dog, but I figure someone truly irredeemable wouldn't have changed no matter how helpless he became.

The characterization is just superb, as usual, and once again DWJ gives us a dysfunctional family that is maybe too realistic for comfort. Kathleen is the poor relation who's in the same situation Sirius is, dependent on a family in which the adults are unreliable. Basil's the oldest son, kind of a jerk because he's bigger and a bully; Robin's the middle child, too weak to stand up to Basil even though he likes Kathleen. Mr. Duffield, Kathleen's uncle, is the distant father who doesn't notice anything that isn't important to him. And Duffy, his wife, is a nasty shrew whose laziness and viciousness is most obvious when she blackmails Kathleen into doing all the cooking and household chores to keep Sirius (Leo, as Kathleen names him) from being thrown out or killed. I don't know how old Kathleen is, but she can't be older than 11, and the thought of a healthy grown woman standing by while a child struggles with responsibilities she's not ready for makes me sick. One of the things I love most about this book is when Miss Smith, a kind and intelligent old lady who knows "Leo" is more than he appears, adopts Kathleen to get her out of the Duffields' house and give her a real home. I don't care that that was probably unrealistic even for 1975; I want to believe that a horrible biological family is not a life sentence.

Finally, I'm fascinated by the mythology of the story, both the invented mythos of the star-denizens and the Celtic myth elements of the cold dogs and the Hunt. Most of the story is set on Earth, so the bits about the denizens are sort of in the background, but DWJ never lets anything go to waste. Polaris is a variable star? Its denizen must be a stammerer! I get the impression that DWJ had thought the background through enough that she could have written a second book just based on that material. It's the sort of thing that gives depth to a story, and I'd admire Dogsbody for it even if I didn't love it.
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