Review: Judy: A Dog in A Million by Damien Lewis

DSCF1372After the disastrous read that was The Dog Who Dared He could Dream, I was left with a need to read something canine related which I would actually enjoy. I am a huge lover of history, and one of the things which I love to read about are the true events of dogs involved in the war. These stories are so touching and inspiring, and whilst they may not always blow me away with the style of writing, the stories they tell are in a class of their own. Having previously  read Damien Lewis’s War Dog, I thought it was about time I read one of his other novels.

Judy: A Dog in a Million, tells the tale of one English Pointer. Bred in China with the purpose of bringing a touch of home to the British born locals, Judy’s life is somewhat turbulent right from the start. The story takes us from Judy’s puppy-hood, through to her adolescence and old age, describing the incredible feats she achieved. From being the ship’s mascot on board the British gunboat HMS Grasshopper, through to the outbreak of World War Two and becoming a prisoner of war to the Japanese (the only animal POW held during the second World War!); her life is certainly not that of a typical country dog.

Firstly, I want to say that I found the author’s note, alongside the prelude, to be really interesting. The author’s note especially was a brilliant reminder of just how rooted in reality this story is, and the difficulties that can come when attempting to write about such a traumatic part of the world’s history. As Lewis wrote:

‘So many people remember Judy, her companions and their adventures: so few documented those memories. This is understandable. The time spent by Allied servicemen as prisoners of war of the Japanese was terribly traumatic, and many did not want to speak about it. Many chose to take their stories to their graves.’ P. ix.

It brought to light the reality of the task that is attempting to write a book about someone such as Judy, a POW who would have been capable of telling her own story. The preface is just as interesting, explaining how the author came to become acquainted with the figure of Judy, and how he began the writing process. By including these details it gave a context which I think was very necessary, and grounded the book very firmly as a true recount of history which is so often forgotten.

Lewis establishes the setting very well. We start, not in Japan, but in Shanghai, before the war has even started. Despite this, it is still an extremely turbulent time, with Imperial Japan making their presence and intentions of invasion and subjugation continually clear to their age old enemy, China. I freely admit that my knowledge of Chinese and Japanese history is somewhat limited, so it was a good experience to learn more about their relations through the figure of Judy.  What I struggled with  is that I felt we were given a lot of dates, and a lot of geographical locations, barely any of which I was familiar with. As such, these often blurred into one confusion, and I struggled to really make these distinct associations.

Something I did know however, and which sickens me to my stomach when I think of how it still occurs in some places today, is the way that these cultures viewed and still view dog meat as a delicacy. The very fact that Judy made it through the war, a period of extremely low food rations, without becoming a meal was in itself somewhat of a miracle. Having said that, people from within a certain culture cannot, of course, always be branded with the same tarnished brush, and that is a questionable idea which is also discussed in this book. The Japanese Colonel Banno really symbolised this qualm. He is a high ranking Japanese official, allowing prisoners to suffer in horrific conditions under the name of the Emperor, and yet he definitely takes a liking to Judy. This liking is responsible for even saving her life, and left me as a reader unsure how to feel about such conflicting representations of a man. Because of Judy, myself as the reader, and of course the prisoner themselves, were able to see differing sides to those so firmly regarded as an enemy, and whilst this produces an uncomfortable contradiction, the acts of humanity also produces a twisted respect.

Something which really shocked me (especially because of the fact I was not really aware of it) was the idea that the majority of those forced to work to the death to build the railways for the Japanese were not actually prisoners of war. It blew my mind that whilst the horrific number of  700 Allied POW’s were killed whilst building just the one stretch of railroad between Pakan Baroe and Moeara, a staggering eighty thousand and more native Indonesians were also killed.  Trying to even wrap my head around those figures is challenging enough, and is an absolute pittance compared to what they suffered. The men, who were local slave labourers, were given the toughest jobs of all during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. As meager as the POW’s food rations were, with nowhere near enough to avoid death by starvation, these local men were often given no food, and left to fend for themselves with literally no shelter or food expect what they could find in the jungle. Effectively, these men were viewed as less than cattle, dispensable workers who worked until they died. The brutality of war, it seems, will always be able to surprise me.

Looking back on momentous events such as World War Two, it is easy to become blinkered in our nationalistic pride and our bitter anger. It is all too natural to draw the dividing lines between the right side and the wrong side, the enemy and the allies. By becoming so distanced from the actual events, we forget that this was not two single opponents, but a confusion of countries, cultures and individual people who were often victims of decisions made by their rulers without their own input. Something which has really stayed with me after this book was the idea spoke within it of forgiveness. The belief mentioned was that those prisoners of war who were able to forgive, were able to move forward in some sort of capacities with their life, whereas those unable to reconcile themselves to the crimes committed were often left with nothing to sustain their already broken bodies other than anger. The idea of how someone reacts to these kinds of events will always fascinate me.

I have to be honest when I say that I did have issues with the writing style of this book. It’s not that Lewis is a necessarily a bad writer, but I did find the writing often fell into something akin to what you would find being written for children. Perhaps this style is used to convey the way we often view animals with having quite simplistic emotions of love and hate, like and dislike, but I found it to often greatly contradict the incredible stories within the novel. Likewise, the subject matter of this book is decidedly NOT child focused, and the occasional slippages into a narrative which would suit a child like audience seemed to completely oppose the themes of the book.

The end of this book had me quite literally in tears, even whilst sat on public transport commuting to work. It’s not a spoiler to say so, as the book is such an emotional ride that the conclusion of not only the story we have been following, but also the larger one of the end of the war and returning to home, was always going to be a difficult one. There is this great sense of pride, of patriotism, instilled in the ending that it honestly did uplift my spirit after reading of such harrowing ordeals.  The fact that not only the solider and POW’s, but also the animals like Judy who literally saved lives as well as encouraging the spirits, were recognised for their brave deeds really hits the heart in a unique way.

I really enjoyed this book, and whilst I did have issues with the writing style, Damien Lewis has proved yet again that he is capable of producing such a heart rendering tale of true events. The book definitely got better as it gained momentum, and it is certainly a quick read. I must also mention the beautiful pictures of Judy herself, as well as the extracts from historical archives at the end of the book. Details such as these really helped make this more all the more relatable and realistic, and show that Lewis was eager to instill as much accuracy as possible. I think that I enjoyed Judy’s story, and learning more about the subject matter itself,  more than I enjoyed the actually execution of the novel, although this is still a great read.

Publisher: Quercus

Rating: 3*/5*

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