Book review: A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

It’s tempting to think of the apocalypse, any apocalypse, as the end of all things.

In many ways it is, of course, with all the things that define us as a people rendered obsolete, thrust into oblivion so completely that retrieving them, even if we wanted to, is well nigh impossible.

What A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher does though is provide us with a heartfelt if often grim reminder that as long as there are people, one thing will endure – our humanity.

It’s not always perfectly expressed, and comes with as many flaws as it has virtuous attributes, but it’s worth hanging onto as long as there are people to express it, with as much good as bad flowing from its intangible realms.

It’s an inspiring idea that Griz, the protagonist in this intimately-expressed book (all the more remarkable given the expansive nature of its premise and backdrop) thinks he has a handle on at the start of the story when his small Hebridean island off the coast of Scotland, where he lives with his mum and dad, brother and sister, is visited by a stranger in a boat with red sails.

In a world where a mysterious infertility event known as the Gelding has rendered all but a minuscule percentage of people incapable of reproducing, the arrival of anyone is a significant event, though whether it’s one worthy of celebration or wariness is never quite certain.

“Dogs were with us from the very beginning …
And those that remain are still with us now, here at the end of the world. And they may be no law left except what you make it, but if you steal my dog, you can at least expect me to come after you. If we’re not loyal to the things we love, what’s the point? That’s not like having a memory. That’s when we stop being human.
That’s a kind of death, even if you keep breathing.” (P. 1)

For the world is now populated by less than ten thousand people total, making the production of all the things upon which our civilisation once depended more than a little problematic, and the continuation of life as Homo Sapiens once knew it impossible, it’s realisation receding into the stuff of myth and legend.

Griz, who has grown upon reading all kinds of fiction, despite his father’s stress on the constant acquisition of useful knowledge such as how to grow plants or tend to an infected wound, is more than well-acquainted with what the world wants looked like though his experience of it is not first hand, and is circumscribed by the smallness of his father’s carefully-curated island existence.

When events conspire to drag him from the cosiness of his small “e” existence and into the larger world of a largely-depopulated British mainland, he discovers that all this reading was the outgrowth of a hitherto-unexpressed desire to see the world beyond the borders of his life to date.

You could call what happens next an adventure, and in some ways it is, but it is also a challenge beyond words, an ordeal by fire that takes him to a place when he has to keep deciding what matters to him, and deal with some truths about himself in a way his once-bucolic life had no call for (and reveal some to others which are explosively revelatory in their own way).

C. A Fletcher (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is such a captivating precisely because it never once forgets that while we might lose cars and electricity and cities, we don’t lose an innate sense of who we are as a people.

It’s reading how Griz deals with coming to grips with his own sense of what it means to be human, and how he processes how other people express theirs, good and bad, that make this apocalyptic tale such a compelling read.

You’re drawn from the very beginning into what is, at heart, an exploration of humanity that pulls no punches, and is grimly realistic of the horrors we’re capable of but which also retains hope that even when we are functionally extinct, that there is still a reason to go on, to keep the species alive and to celebrate what makes us human.

That Fletcher accomplishes this without once being twee or falling into Hallmark-ian inspirationalism, or losing himself in the grim bowels of the apocalypse, is testament to his strengths as a writer.

At every turn A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is real and true, an evocative and intimate tale of what happens to one young man when his world is upended and he has to deal with the kind of bigger picture which is all too rare in a new and empty world.

“The day began early and was tinged with sadness from the very start as we saddled the horses and strapped on their packs, and then said goodbye to the Homely House.
I hoped that if all went well that I might pass by there again one day, but the world – big and empty as it is – still contains more surprises than you could imagine, and so even before what happened happened to me, I knew returning to that happy place was not something to rely on.” (P. 265)

Thing is, there are still people there, and while humanity lives on, and honestly, it’s touch-and-go in certain ways, all of the great existential questions that plague us now, plague us then.

We don’t suddenly because virtuous beyond measure in the face of annihilation, but nor we do lose the redeeming better angels of our nature either, a dichotomy that Griz discovers on his revelatory adventure up and down the British isles, and which infuses A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World with a warmth and honesty that can’t help but charm you as much as it opens your eyes.

The characters in this remarkable book are utterly compelling; with Fletcher realising them so well that you can’t help but be drawn to them, even when they are representative of the worse, rather than the best of our species.

Helping to give some perspective is the way Griz relates all his discoveries, interior and otherwise, to an imagined interlocutor from before the end of the world, a young man represented by a photo Griz finds on one of his “viking” trips – in a world where no new tech or goods are being produced, “viking” aka scavenging has become a very necessary verb – who is the stand in for all the things our protagonist discovers about the world but which he will never experience firsthand for himself.

It’s a clever narrative device which adds some weight to Griz’s discoveries as we see him discover what he and humanity have lost but what its loss might them in a world busted back to a more agrarian past.

Along with The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James, which tells a wholly different story on a similar premise, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World takes a hard look at humanity, asking at it does so how much of us would really survive at the end of the world.

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