All right. I admit it. I bought this book mainly because I had the great pleasure of hearing its author, Brian Conaghan, give a reading from it at the recent CBI Conference. Mr Conaghan is, as well as a gifted author, an accomplished actor; he made his text come alive before our eyes.
Hearing a chapter performed did give me the irrepressible need to read the entire novel in a Scottish accent, however. This wasn’t so easy.
When Mr Dog Bites is a challenging novel to review, mainly because I know from the get-go that it isn’t going to suit everyone. It is filled with expletives, for a start, and Dylan Mint – our singular hero – has a best friend, Amir, whose family comes from Pakistan. As a result, Amir is referred to by an impressively colourful collection of derogatory and racist names throughout the book. Mr Conaghan spoke at length about this issue when interviewed at the CBI Conference, and I am fully in agreement with him when he says that stripping these characters of this sort of language would have been an act of vandalism: it would have robbed them of their vernacular. This is entirely true.
But there really is a lot of swearing, most of which is absolutely hilarious and will have you snorting with laughter on the bus/under your desk at work/in church/wherever. Be warned.
So, on to the plot. Dylan lives with his mother in a small Scottish town, where he attends a local ‘special’ school. He suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, which manifests itself in a variety of vocal and physical tics which are described expertly and seamlessly throughout the book. Early in the story he realises that he only has a few months to live – he is sure that he will die by March of the following year – and, as a result, he puts together a short bucket list. Because he’s a teenage boy, having sex with a girl features highly (of course), but a close second is finding Amir a new best friend. Getting his absent father home from Afghanistan, where he is serving as a soldier, rounds up the list. The book brings us through what Dylan believes will be the last few months of his life, and we are introduced to a cast of characters so real, and funny, and three-dimensional, that I almost felt like I knew them by the end. The object of Dylan’s affection is a girl named Michelle Malloy, whose club foot and bad attitude to authority do not lessen her attractiveness, and I loved her the whole way through this story. Dylan himself is a charming narrator, and despite the fact that some of the plot twists – particularly in relation to his father – were easy to guess, it doesn’t take anything away from Dylan’s journey as the truth about his family, and his own fate, is revealed.
I truly loved Mrs Mint, Dylan’s mother. She’s a wonderful character. Early in the book she begins a new relationship with a man named Tony, which Dylan finds hard to accept. The changing dynamic between mother and son – and the fierce, protective, overwhelming love between them – was deftly handled and sensitively explored. Dylan’s condition, and his tendency to lose control (let ‘Mr Dog’ out) when he becomes overwhelmed by stress) means that he is not always an easy person to live with – his frankness and logical way of thinking add to this – but his mother accepts him as he is and her affection never fails, even if her patience does. At times Dylan does not sound or seem like a 16-year-old, and I (perhaps in my ignorance) put this down to his condition. I thought his mannerisms and way of processing the world around him were reminiscent of the child from The Dog in the Night-Time, even though Dylan is not described overtly as being autistic (though from what I know of Tourette’s syndrome, it is part of the autistic spectrum). It can lend his preoccupation with sex and genitalia a slightly strange air, though, as the reader does tend to forget that he is almost 17 years old.
I didn’t ‘buy’ some of the teenage slang used in the book, either, which seemed forced and artificial to me. However, I’m pretty sure that Mr Conaghan – as a Scotsman and a person who has worked with teenagers for years – knows his onions when it comes to this. The fact that some of the dialogue didn’t sound real to me probably says more about me than it does about the book. I also found that some scenes were oddly paced – we get a lot of detail about relatively inconsequential things, and then important scenes (like the one in which Amir and Dylan are trying to buy contraception and the stress of the situation brings out Mr Dog) are skimmed over somewhat. I thought this was a shame. I was also a bit troubled by the conclusion of Dylan’s storyline with his father; there’s a small detail about Dylan’s dad near the start of the book which makes the ending seem very poignant, and I wondered if this was intended.
Overall, though, I enjoyed this book. Perhaps it’s because I have a rather puerile and ‘bad’ language-centred sense of humour, or perhaps it’s because I have a soft spot for underdogs, or perhaps it’s because Dylan Mint stole my heart. Whatever the reason, I liked When Mr Dog Bites, and if you’re looking for a ‘coming of age’ tale with a difference, this could be the book for you.
Happy weekend! By the way, I hope to be back to my normal blogging schedule from Monday. Stay tuned, word fans!