Kathe Koja, Straydog (FSG, 2002)
[originally posted 4Nov2002]
Over the course of my existence I’ve read somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand books. While I am one of those people who will start sniffling at the merest hint of decently-rendered emotion in a movie, and bawl like a baby when certain songs come on the radio, I’ve never been that way with books. With reflection, I’ve been able to think of three books that reduced me to tears while reading them (Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Kathe Koja’s Strange Angels, and Clive Barker’s Sacrament). Add a fourth to the list: Kathe Koja’s newest offering, the short novel Straydog.
Marketed as a young adult title (but those of us who know Koja’s writing know better), Straydog is the story of a high school outcast, Rachel, who volunteers at an animal shelter while not at school. She develops a bond with a feral collie brought into the shelter one day. While writing a short story to submit to a competition, she begins to identify with the dog to an almost supernatural degree.
Koja’s writing is, as always, dead on in its ability to capture and explain the essence of the outcast in society. Anyone who was part of a fringe group during high school should be able to well identify with Rachel’s words, and more importantly with her actions as she’s thrust into unfamiliar situations. Straydog explores adolescent coming of age in a way few books have, and shines in so doing.
As usual where Koja is concerned, there is no comparison that gives a good understanding, no way to recommend the book based on anything you’ve already read; Koja is still too far out on the bleeding edge for that, with a style that approaches poetry in places and the same strong undercurrent of classic surrealism that runs its way through almost all of her work. (The only book I was put in mind of while reading this is Ursula LeGuin’s novel Very Far Away from Anywhere Else.)
A shoo-in for the ten-best list this year, and will probably be at its pinnacle. *****