This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Plague Dogs: Review

Genre:Literature & Fiction
Author:Richard Adams

Maybe as a dog lover I should not be reviewing this book. I can hardly be objective or impartial, after all.

Snitter and Rowf are dogs incarcerated for experimental purposes in the aptly titled ARSE (Animal Research Scientific and Experimental) in the Lake District, England. Rowf, a big black mongrel who seems to be more a Newfoundland retriever than anything, is being repeatedly drowned in a tank of water to see how much of a resistance he can build up. He has never known a family home and consoles himself with the thought that dogs were meant to suffer for the betterment of the “whitecoats”. Snitter, a fox terrier separated from his master, whom he believes dead, has undergone brain surgery designed to drive him insane so that he can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and imagination. There are other dogs and other animals who have also undergone mutilation and horror – NONE of which is fictional – in the interests of “abstract scientific knowledge”. A classic example cited is that of guinea pigs who had legs amputated (without anaesthetics, of course) just to find out whether they compensated for the absence of the limb (Answer: they didn’t. They behaved as if the leg was still there.)

One night when the caretaker leaves Rowf’s cage accidentally open, he and Snitter manage to escape through the incinerator chimney and make their way to the moor. There they join forces with a wild fox (“tod”, in the fox’s dialect) and kill sheep to live. This draws down the wrath of farmers on them and ARSE finally admits that the dogs did escape. In order to sensationalise the story, the gutter press (in the person of Digby Driver of the “London Orator”) deliberately and cynically spreads the rumour that the dogs have been exposed to, and presumably are suffering from, bubonic plague.

As the story explodes in the media, the government orders the army to hunt the dogs down, and they, in their turn, try and survive by any means possible, eating sheep when they can and raiding the isolated farms for what they can find. Despite their unexpected resourcefulness and many narrow escapes, hunger, cold and mounting injuries combine to force them off the moor or face death.

Finally, they are cornered on a sea-bird sanctuary on the coast and are forced to try and swim out to sea. What happens next is something I won’t reveal here, except to say that it is one of the most moving and satisfying endings one could imagine for a very sad and beautiful book (dog lovers note – you won’t have cause for sorrow).

There is much of beauty in the book – the description of the moor, the mountains, the people, and not least the dogs themselves and most of all of Snitter himself, his hallucinations, his mounting problems with his sanity, his dependence on Rowf and yet his leadership of the duo. And the handling of the last scene of all, with the dogs swimming to certain death in the sea (or are they?) is among the best I have read in a long time.

This is not a children’s book, though the characters are dogs who can talk to each other. It’s completely adult in theme, concept and execution. As a dedication to the animal victims of random science it can’t be improved on.

Anyone, incidentally, who wants to know how the book ended but can’t get to read it should either search online for a plot synopsis or ask me by personal message. (I’d recommend you read the book, though. Even if you don’t like dogs.)

I’d also recommend Richard Adam’s two other animal-themed novels, the rabbit saga “Watership Down” and the Bronze Age tale “Shardik”, about a gigantic bear. They all deserve five stars

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