Brilliant by Roddy Doyle
I don’t often read or review books intended for pre-teen children these days – I’m keeping up with my now teenaged daughter in YA reading. However, a book by Roddy Doyle for what they now call ‘middle-grade’ readers (why can’t we still say older children?), is a must, especially as I enjoyed his 2011 novel A Greyhound of a Girl for early teens so much, (my review here).
Now it’s going to be impossible to say much about this novel without using its title – for Brilliant is pretty brilliant! Firstly, it gives us a child’s eye view of living with someone who’s depressed; then it takes the childrens’ very literal understanding of what the adults call the black dog, and runs with it. Doyle’s black dog becomes a scary phantasm of a real creature, and the children are determined to run it out of town. It all starts when Raymond and Gloria’s parents start mumbling downstairs about their Uncle Ben who is coming to live with them – his business has faltered and he’s not himself at the moment …
Mumbling was different. Chatting often changed into talking, and back to chatting. But mumbling was always mumbling. It was like a foreign language, heard through walls and floors. […] Raymond and Gloria didn’t like the mumbling. They didn’t understand it. But one thing about it was clear: mumbling was very serious. There was never any laughter mixed in with it.
Sneaking downstairs to listen, they overhear their parents and granny talking about the black dog of depression on Uncle Ben’s back, and then their granny says ‘That’s what’s after happening. The funny bone of the city is gone. There’s no one laughing any more.’
The children hatch a plan – to investigate all the black dogs in the neighbourhood and see which is causing the problem. Sneaking out, it’s soon evident that none of them are the culprits, and they bump into Ernie, who’s moonlighting as a vampire and joins them in their search. This is when the black cloud over the city morphs into something slightly more tangible yet charged with dread and chasing it will take them on a journey across the city in which they will need to confront their fears and employ good teamwork to rid Dublin of the black dog …
If this all sounds terribly dark for none-year-olds, don’t worry – for on the way they’ll get help from all the animals they encounter from rats to seagulls to beasts more exotic altogether. I’d love to discuss how they manage to achieve their quest, as Doyle uses a literary trope that’s cropped up in quite a few adult novels I’ve read – albeit in a roundabout way, but I don’t want to spoil the story entirely for you. Of course, the road back from depression, as an illness and economically, is a long, hard one, you can’t get rid of it so simply, but the second half of the book is obviously a fantasy adventure, so I have no beef with that. Given that it was written for children, as an adult read Brilliant is overdone, but an interesting addition to the growing collection of recent novels tackling mental health issues. (7.5/10)
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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle. Published May 2014 by MacMillan, hardback 256 pages.