Author: Elizabeth Pienaar
Publisher: Human & Rousseau, 2013
Okay, this is a review quite by accident, as this is a book that fell on my desk, and it’s not my chosen genre (in fact, this is about as far from GrimDark fantasy as you can get). But I will pack all my bats, vampires and bloody swords into my closet and give this a fair and honest review.
First off, though this book is aimed at a young adult readership, I must state that there’s a huge difference between what South African publishers think is appropriate for young adults and what UK or US publishers deem acceptable. Consequently, I’d peg this novel appropriate for ages 10 to 12 or thereabouts, considering that most kids I’ve spoken to are already reading adult books from 12 onward (if not sooner).
Also, a word on the cover art, I suspect they’re aiming at girls. Personally, the cover art was not to my taste, and I’ll leave it at that, because once again, I’m clearly not the intended target market which I suspect might be schools and libraries (in which case this cover art is possibly totally fine for the South African market).
At its heart, this is a story of a dog, Bobby, who ends up homeless and unwanted at a shelter after his owner, Natasha, is murdered; and a girl, Jessie, who is absolutely devastated when her white shepherd dog, Dash, dies. There’s a whiff of paranormal match-making when the deceased Natasha and Dash conspire to bring Bobby and Jessie together, which pretty much sums up the plot.
Highlighted issues are obviously animal rights issues, especially with regard to the way people treat animals like commodities, which did twist at my heart.
However the secondary story arc, about Jessie’s loss and subsequent depression was, in my opinion, not handled well. I kept asking myself what really was wrong with the teen if she couldn’t get past her grief for her dog, because if I were absolutely honest, the child behaved in a manner completely out of proportion to the kind of grief your average person felt.
Now I’ve lost companion animals in my time that I will occasionally still shed a tear over, but nothing to the extent that I’d make myself sick over the dog or cat. Jessie’s obsession with the deceased Dash comes across just ever so slightly creepy, and I’ll be honest that as a reader I struggled to care about her, especially in the light of her self-centredness. I suspect the author wanted to show how much Jessie loved her dog, but there was something unnerving about how she focused so much on the animal to the exclusion of anyone else in her life.
If I think back to my teen years (and looking back in my journals, there were many interests, largely dominated by boys, friends and assorted social shenanigans). Even someone who seeks to isolate herself would frame her state of being against this backdrop of what they’re not – teens are at least socially aware to that degree. And here I also speak from the perspective of someone who has suffered severe depression. It seemed odd to me that Jessie’s entire life revolved around the dog, unless of course the dog itself took on a deeper meaning which was not fully explained.
Bobby is the real star of the show, and I’m almost tempted to say Jessie doesn’t deserve him. He stoically aims to be a good dog, and every step of the way after Natasha dies, he’s shunted aside and neglected. My heart bled for him, especially since he tried so hard to please people. So, as far as characterisation goes, the author does a good job making me empathise with Bobby, but unfortunately not Jessie. Bobby does act as a catalyst for healing, so there is that.
So, for the final verdict, if you’re looking to buy a young reader (10 to 12 or thereabouts) a light, uplifting read with an underlying theme of animal welfare, this might be a good choice. Be aware that the main human viewpoint character suffers from severe depression and is inclined toward self harm. (It might be something you want to discuss with the reader if they're fairly young). But if you’re looking for something edgy, with more grit, then this is probably not the book for you.