Andy Mulligan’s novel Dog, intended for young readers aged 12-14 or so, is an affectionate look at the trials and tribulations of owning a dog – especially when, like Tom the young protagonist, it’s for the first time.
Spider is a dog who comes into an already dysfunctional household. Tom doesn’t have the best relationship with his dad, and his absent mother is a cause of irritation. The lodger Phil adds to his feeling of isolation. When his penniless dad brings home a dog for him, Tom is overjoyed. But dogs will be dogs, and Spider’s mischievous nature lands him in hot water when Tom is unable to cover for him.
When Spider and Tom become separated, their lives spiral into turmoil. They haven’t known each other for long – they just know they’re destined to be best friends forever.
Dog brilliantly captures what it’s like to adopt and to nurture man’s best friend – even when our canine companions drive us potty. The book is funny, moving and brutal in turns, yet it always manages to be emotionally truthful.
There are some eccentric touches to the book. The story is told from the perspectives of Tom and Spider – but this means endowing the dog with the ability to talk. He doesn’t do this with humans, but rather with other dogs, a glamorous yet malign cat called Moonlight, a spider, a moth caught within the spider’s web, a flea that jumps onto his back…
The voices become a bit much in parts. The moth suffers an existential crisis at the hands of the sadistic spider that tortures it before eating it. It’s not clear why a dog and a moth can converse, yet a dog and a human can’t… but the universalism of non-human species is one of the book’s dramatic conventions, so go with it.
There are moments in the story that are incredibly memorable and powerful. On one of Spider’s adventures he meets a young female fox called Jesse, and they quickly become firm friends. The outcome the reader must discover for themselves, but in such passages Mulligan can’t be accused of sentimentality.
Despite a few scenes that linger in the imagination for some time afterwards, the separation of Tom and Spider starts to feel milked, and there are a few elements that don’t dramatically satisfy. Lodger Phil and the missing mother are never brought into focus or given lives of their own. Incidental characters such as school bully Robert find time in the limelight they haven’t warranted.
Overall though, Dog gets through on the strength of its charm and on the undeniable rapport built up between Tom and Spider. Everything else fades into relative insignificance. Cats are manipulative, spiders sadistic, foxes wily and fleas reliable: such unchangeable supporting characters form the backdrop of the only real friendship in the story that matters – the one that exists between the two protagonists.
Dog neatly captures canine and childhood psychology and weaves them into a story that satisfies rather than surprises. Youngsters pestering for a four-legged friend will love this book. It helps enormously that it has a good moral heart.
Publisher: Pushkin Children’s Publication Date: 26th October 2017