In this slim, seemingly simple tale, Irish writer extraordinaire Roddy Doyle has attempted to do something profound – and very important.
There is a lot of talk, in Ireland and elsewhere, that we are now ‘pulling out of’ the recession which has plagued Europe and the world for the past seven years or so. We’re seeing ‘an end to austerity’ and an increase, apparently, in take-home pay and a general improvement in most people’s lives. So they say. I’m not sure how equitable this recovery (if it even exists) is, or has been, and there are some sectors of life in Ireland which got off far more lightly than others. People are still suffering, and mental health is a topic of regular discussion. People are being treated for depression and complications arising from it; anxiety disorders are common. Everyone knows someone, usually someone close, who has struggled and/or who continues to struggle. Nobody seems certain what to do about it, or whether it is every going to end.
One thing is for sure, though: throughout this whole period, when every news bulletin and newspaper and TV talk show and radio opinion piece was focused entirely on the recession, the austerity measures put in place by the government, the taxes and levies which were brought in ‘as emergency measures’ and then never removed, the growing queues of unemployed, and the emigration numbers which seemed to have no upper limit, not very many people stopped to think what effect all this doom and gloom was having on the children who had to live through it. How hard it must be to be a child – particularly a sensitive, inquisitive, knowing child, who is aware of the world and the adults around them – watching the future of their country collapse, and wondering what will become of them down the line? This is the scenario we’re faced with in Brilliant, where Gloria and Rayzer (Raymond), a sister and brother living in West Dublin, find their beloved uncle coming to live in their house because the bank has taken his, and he needs some time to ‘get back on his feet.’ His laughter and sense of fun have gone, and the family (who already have Gloria and Rayzer’s granny living with them, too) soon begins to suffer under the strain. Everyone loves Uncle Ben, of course, but living all squeezed up together is not a lot of fun.
One night, as Gloria and Rayzer eavesdrop on a conversation between their parents and their granny, the idea that Ben has ‘the black dog’ on his back comes up. ‘The black dog has taken Dublin’s funny bone,’ says Granny – and Gloria and Rayzer, being enterprising kids, immediately set out to find the funny bone and steal it back. On the way they rope in their very eccentric neighbour Ernie, who has decided to work as a vampire in order to stave off the worst of the recession’s effects (I can’t help thinking there’s a complex metaphor in there about blood-suckers draining the life out of the country!) and as their quest continues, boys and girls from all over the city, all of whom have loved ones who are suffering because of ‘the black dog’, join in their fight.
For the kids have one secret weapon up their sleeves – a magic word which can destroy the black dog of Depression and send him trotting away from Dublin for good.
This is a very straightforward book – there’s no getting away from that. It began life as a short story, and in some ways it does feel a bit ‘stretched’, as if there’s not enough plot to sustain its length. But that hardly matters when you’re reading dialogue which, at times, made me shake with laughter and set-pieces which are so Irish, so Dublin, that reading this book is as good as taking a trip to my fair capital city. I loved that Doyle made the seagulls of Dublin such heroes in his story, because – to be honest – nobody in Dublin likes the seagulls which seem, at times, to be running the place. The cry of a seagull will always remind me of Dublin, and they are absolutely part of the fabric of the city, but they’re also a huge nuisance. So, to see them having a wonderful role in the denouement of this story was refreshing, and fun. There are landmarks galore in here, and the route the children take is one I know extremely well, so I was there with them in my head as they ran, chasing the black dog through the streets. Even if you don’t know Dublin, or the route they take, there’s a handy map (drawn by Chris Judge, who also did the illustrations) inside the front and back covers of my edition (the hardback) to keep you on track.
Most of this book’s appeal lies in its characters, both animal and human alike, and in the sheer fun of the dialogue. A lot of it is very Irish, and might cause a bit of confusion if you’re not used to it, but in most cases context serves to sort out what’s happening. The plot is uncomplicated, the action is all driven towards driving the black dog out of the city, and the simple power of the book lies in the reality behind it – the fact that we know, as readers, exactly how hard it is, and has been, to live through the past few years, and how many people that black dog has squashed out of existence. The actions of the kids – coming together, and fighting as one – might be the best answer anyone has yet come up with to fighting off the darkness; maybe we adults could do worse than actually listen to them, for once.