This is a very special book.
It’s also not the kind of book I’d normally read. However, when Sarah Lean’s agent, Julia Churchill, tweeted that it had gone into its ninth language (yes, ninth) in mid-February, I realised that I was probably missing something spectacular. As it turned out, I was.
Cally Louise Fisher hasn’t spoken for thirty-one days. Her mother has died suddenly a year earlier, but as the family gather at the grave Cally sees her standing ‘real as anything’ on the cemetery wall. The problem is, no-one will believe her.
Cally’s father refuses to engage in discussion with his daughter, and even Cally’s best friend, Mia, has decided she’s rather be friends with Daisy Bouvier instead. So when Cally volunteers for a sponsored silence at school, it’s a chance to show people that there’s more to her than they think. And anyway, “if [Mum isn’t] here to… show us we [are] everything, then it’s like you’re nothing. You don’t know who you are.”
This book is so subtle and perceptive that it was a while before its cleverness crept up on me. A Dog Called Homeless is a simple story, perfect for the 9+ age range, but beneath the surface run great truths.
Unlistened to, Cally’s silence persists. She opts out of speaking to her father, her teachers, her classmates and her brother Luke, and it is only through other marginalised characters that she finds her ‘voice’. There’s Sam, her deaf and blind neighbour with whom she learns sign language, and Jed, the gentle busking tramp. And then, of course, there is ‘Homeless’, - the huge silver-grey dog that Cally first sees with her mother and who keeps on coming back to her, despite everyone else’s attempts to get rid of him. And whatever Homeless is, Cally is certain that he’s not a ghost.
It would be easy for this tale to become sentimental, but Lean’s deft touch is magical. Much of the story is told in what lies unsaid, and in a story about losing your voice it is a technique with considerable emotional power.
More than once, I found tears pouring down my face as I read it in a cafe. Achieving this in any book is impressive. To make an adult cry, in public, with a book aimed at the children’s market is extremely rare - and it is the subtleties that will get you.
Throughout the book, Lean delicately highlights the disconnection between what Cally means and how she is interpreted by others. Her friendship with Sam too is cleverly underplayed, so it is only after some time that its full significance becomes clear. “What you think is on the outside is in the middle”, Cally’s mum tells her, and as the book continues you discover just how right she is.
This is an extraordinary achievement for a debut novel, assured, perceptive and with enormous emotional depth. To marry this with such a simply told tale is nothing short of astonishing. Seriously. Go buy it!