Tag Archives: Roddy Doyle

Book Review Saturday – ‘Brilliant’

In this slim, seemingly simple tale, Irish writer extraordinaire Roddy Doyle has attempted to do something profound – and very important.

Image: panmacmillan.com.au

Image: panmacmillan.com.au

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.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Beyond the Stars’

Beyond the Stars is a unique book, insofar as it’s a collection of short stories from eleven of Ireland’s most celebrated authors for children (plus one from an extremely talented young lady named Emma Brade, of which more later), sold in aid of Fighting Words, a creative writing centre in Dublin. Each story is illustrated, with one particularly industrious chap, Oisin McGann, not only writing but illustrating his own story, and they are all (stories and illustrations alike) awesome.

L-R: Sarah Webb, Niamh Sharkey and Roddy Doyle, launching 'Beyond the Stars' Image copyright: Brown Bag Films Image sourced: www.brownbagfilms.com

L-R: Sarah Webb, Niamh Sharkey and Roddy Doyle, launching ‘Beyond the Stars’
Image copyright: Brown Bag Films
Image sourced: http://www.brownbagfilms.com

The book is the brainchild of Sarah Webb, who conceived of it and contacted the authors involved, asking them to donate their time and work. She writes about her experience here, taking us through the conception and construction of the book, and her experience of conducting the authors and illustrators from bare outline to fully-finished product. Fighting Words is a cause she is passionately involved with, and many authors – particularly those in Ireland – would be familiar with it and the great work it does in encouraging people who might not have a chance to take part in creative writing classes to do just that. It works with people of all ages, but much of its effort is focused on schoolchildren, which makes Beyond the Stars a particularly appropriate way to raise funds and awareness for the cause.

There are twelve stories here – twelve tales of Adventure, Magic and Wonder, as the cover illustration makes clear – and each of them have a wintry theme, taking place at that time of year or somehow involving snow, or cold weather. It couldn’t be better pitched, then, to go on sale in October, when the year is beginning to get slow and creaky, and the nights are getting long, and the breeze has a bit of a bite in it. The first tale is Roddy Doyle’s The Star Dogs, which – once the intrigued reader has a handle on what’s happening – unfolds into the most wonderful imaginative landscape, at once completely separate and (because it involves dogs, and is written in such a humane and emotional way) intimately involved with a modern child’s experience. It’s touching, and exciting, and it will open the reader up to learning more about the real events surrounding the story.

I loved Judi Curtin’s How to Help Your Grandda, written entirely in letters between a small boy with a cold grandfather and the rich, if inflexible, owner of a home heating business, and the gradual relationship which grows between them. I really loved Celine Kiernan’s beautiful, if heartbreaking, story of a wintry battlefield, The Last Cat, and I read the last few pages of this story over and over because it grabbed me right in the heart and wouldn’t let go. The aforementioned Oisin McGann’s tale Across the Cold Ground is a touching tale of cameraderie and courage in the trenches of World War One, and the lengths to which a soldier will go to keep a tiny piece of home with him in the midst of an icy war zone. But my favourite story by far was Discovering Bravery by Emma Brade, the last story in the collection. Emma is a teen writer, who won a competition to be included in Beyond the Stars. Her story is beautifully written and deeply touching, telling of a young girl named Ruka who must learn, through the example of her older brother Rowan, what the meaning of courage truly is, and I loved it. I was amazed to learn the author’s age; her work easily holds its own among the other stories, and her voice is as engaging as any of her more seasoned co-authors.

Beyond the Stars is published by Harper Collins, who are donating all proceeds from its sales to Fighting Words, and it is available in all good bookshops and/or in your usual online retailers. If you have, or know, a child who likes stories (or even a big child who likes stories!) this book would make a beautiful Christmas present, and the fact that every sale is helping to fund a fantastic project like Fighting Words makes it all the better. Highly recommended.