Sub-genre: Pirates, historical fiction, YA
Rating: 4 pints of blood
I'm a real sucker for a lovely cover, and I love this one. It just really works for me: the simple design, the colour scheme, the font. The girl playing with a ship in the eye socket of a skull. Wonderful!
Infamous and bloodthirsty, teenage pirate Emer is all set to leave her days plundering the Spanish in the Caribbean behind and sail off with her long-lost and new-found love, Seanie, and their treasure for Ireland, when she is killed by an old enemy and cursed to live the life of a hundred dogs.
A hundred dogs and about three hundred years later, Emer is reborn in 1972 as Saffron Adams - with all her memories intact, memories of being Emer and of being numerous dogs all over the world. The last child of five born to alcoholic and depressive parents living in Pennsylvania, she wants only to get through school, grab a shovel and head back to Jamaica to dig up her treasure. While she waits she imagines all the colourful ways she can flog, dismember and otherwise torture the people in her life who annoy the crap out of her, in true Emer style.
The Dust of 100 Dogs is told from three perspectives and two timelines: Saffron's first person narration in her present (leading up to 1990); Emer growing up in Ireland in the 1650s, escaping Cromwell, fleeing Paris and ending up captain of an impressive pirate fleet in the Caribbean; and the mildly insane Fred Livingstone, an ageing but still wealthy real estate broker living in Jamaica with his much-abused dog Rusty - also in Saffron's present. All three narratives navigate towards each other to reach a conclusion that's 100 dogs in the making.
Emer and Saffron are wonderful characters, leading different lives, never quite the same person and yet similar enough in ways, both living through tumultuous times and with difficult people. Through it all she - they? - narrates with dark irony, a measure of contempt and a swig of childish enthusiasm. While she's not entirely loveable or even, at times, likeable, she's still charismatic, interesting (never dull), and sympathetic. Both Emer and Saffron present different social issues: Emer of girls and women sold like chattel to men, slaving their lives away in some cases and never taken seriously enough; and Saffron of parents who have grand dreams for their children, pressuring them to live the lives they never could, pinning all their hopes on them and then being upset when they rebel. Both Emer and Saffron speak for a great many teenagers, especially but not exclusively girls, as they try to stand up for themselves. So it's not hard to cheer Emer on as she kills a would-be rapist with a rock, or storms a ship's deck with a cutlass in hand.
Livingstone was another well-drawn, cleverly crafted character. At first, when he suddenly turns up in the story, I wasn't sure why he was there, but I trusted King that there was a good reason - and there is. He was a mix of brutish fear and cowardly ego, and perversity as he ogles the girls on the beach and imagines conversations in his head where he flirts with them and invites them to dinner. He's a sad man driven to quick rages and you can only feel terribly sorry for poor Rusty the doberman.
Speaking of dogs, interspersed throughout the novel are six dog facts that cleverly reinforce, mirror or complement whatever part of the story they interrupt. You can tell that King is a dog person, and her insights into the nature of dogs - from Saffron's perspective, and she's had a lot of experience! - are great for dog lovers and people, like me, who would like a dog one day but don't really understand them or know what to do with them.
After a bit of a slow start while you get your footing with Saffron's dry, unloving narration (she does have some familial feeling but, knowing exactly where she's come from, she never really sees herself as their daughter or part of their family, which is a bit sad really), the story really picks up as it weaves through time and adventures and gets quite exciting. A wonderful tale of adventure on the high seas (I love that phrase!) and teenage impatience; young love and loss and sheer determination.