Background: I featured this book in my October 5th Reviews that Made Me Want the Book post after I read the description at Presenting Lenore. Three days later the book showed up on my doorstep. Clearly a book that I was destined to read.
Review: The Dust of 100 Dogs by A. S. King is a fascinating and unusual young adult novel. The book begins with a prologue, in which a woman named Emer removes the right eyeball of a dead Frenchman, laments the death of her true love, and buries a treasure on the beach. Emer is then cursed by another man. Her fate is to live 100 lives as a dog, before being reborn as a human, with her memory intact throughout.
Chapter 1 begins 300 years later, in 1972. After 100 lives as a dog, Emer is reborn as Saffron, the youngest of five children in a down-and-out Pennsylvania family. And she wants her treasure back. We learn about Saffron's life through first-person narration, starting with the problems faced by a child born with a keen understanding of 300 years of world politics. Interspersed with Saffron's modern-day story are brief "Dog Fact" sections, in which Saffron shares some of her lessons learned from 100 dog lifetimes. Beginning in Chapter 4, the book begins flashbacks, in third-person narration, to Emer's story. Slowly, piecing together details from Emer's sections, and Saffron's memories, the reader learns how Emer ended up with a treasure to bury on a Caribbean beach. And we learn how Saffron, 300 years later, is supposed to keep her extensive knowledge of killing under wraps while attending a small-town high school.
All in all, this is not an easy book. I would put it at the upper end of the young adult age range, not so much because of the violence (though these is plenty of that, most of it swashbuckling pirate-type violence), but because it takes a fair bit of concentration to put the pieces together. I think that most younger kids would find the book frustrating. (Leila actually went so far as to ask "Is this really a YA book?", and that's sparked a bit of discussion here and here.) However, I think that older kids, and adults, will find The Dust of 100 Dogs highly compelling. I read it in one day, because I just had to figure out what was going on, and what would happen to both Emer and Saffron.
Some of the questions in the book made me stop and think, too. What would it be like to live as a child, with knowledge that you weren't supposed to have? How frustrating would it be to be the sole hope of your downtrodden family, when that hope conflicted with what you wanted from life? If you were reincarnated, and remembered everything, how would you ever separate your current self from your past selves? Or would you need to?
If those questions sound intriguing to you, then you can stop reading here, and wait for the book to come out. If you want a bit more of a look, here's Saffron on what it was like to grow up with Emer's prior knowledge:
"I don't know if my parents saw it, then, but they certainly noticed later on that I was completely different from other children. When I first began talking, I sometimes spoke of places I'd never been, and they would look at me confused. When I started school, my kindergarten teacher arranged a meeting with them and asked where I'd got so much knowledge of history and language." (Chapter 1)
King's writing is both dramatic and engaging. She shows the reader, in subtle ways, how Saffron and Emer are similar in their thinking, yet not the same. She manages to make Saffron a violent pirate and a modern working class teen at the same time. For example, here is Saffron talking to her mother:
""... You'll understand when you have children."
When she said that, I felt the ball of anger in my belly. First, she had me in college and running a local practice. Now, she had me having babies and obligingly understanding her warped view on life. I was only sixteen years old. Why was she making me imagine slicing her eyes out? Why was she forcing me to take my cutlass to the ligaments at the back of her knees?" (Chapter 8)
King also sprinkles dog-related imagery throughout the text, using this theme to tie together some of the disparate elements of the book. For example:
"For eight years, before she was sent to Paris, Emer lived in the rocky hills of Connacht -- miles from her village -- and never once thought there could be a worse place. But living rough in Paris had turned what she once felt was hell onto its back, wanting its belly scratched." (Chapter 4)
The Dust of 100 Dogs is complex and dark (though with flashes of humor). But it's also unique and rewarding, written with a distinct voice, and featuring two very strong-willed female characters. Try this one out on fans of pirate stories, historical fiction, and even YA problem novels. It is not to be missed.
Publication Date: February 1, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher (quotes are from the advance copy, and may not reflect the final printed book)
Other Blog Reviews: Bookshelves of Doom
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.