Wednesday 22 November 2017

Books: The highs and lows of a tragic teenage boy with Tourettes

Fiction: When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan, Bloomsbury, €13.99, pbk, 372 pages

CONNECTION: Scottish-born author Brian Conaghan is proud of his Irish roots
CONNECTION: Scottish-born author Brian Conaghan is proud of his Irish roots

Edel Coffey

Any novel that tries to write from within a condition must inevitably, and unfairly, be compared with the best example of the genre, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime. That book told the story of a young boy with autism and became a crossover hit for both adults and young adults. It was an international bestseller.

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan is told from the point of view of Dylan Mint, a 16-year-old with Tourette's. It's written by someone who knows, as Dublin-based Conaghan suffers from the syndrome.

As the book begins, Dylan is convinced that he is going to die in a few months' time and so draws up a bucket list. In typical teenage-boy fashion, on top of his list is his goal to have 'real sexual intercourse with a girl'. Number two on the list is to make his friend, Amir, happy again, and number three is to get his soldier dad back from the war.

But the book is not so much about a boy with Tourette's as it is about life as a teenager, and all of the problems that go along with that.

Any teenager will be able to relate to the problems encountered by Dylan, from his crush on the coolest girl in school to his cruel treatment at the hands of the bullies from the 'normal' school. Dylan's friendship with the Pakistani Amir is tear-enducingly sweet and emphasises how a friend in school can be the difference between life being bearable and life being intolerable.

Conaghan's experience as a teacher pays off in the dazzling detail and authority with which he writes about the complicated social hierarchies that exist within schools.

Dylan is also dealing with (or refusing to deal with) his mother's relationship with an old school friend, while the absence of his army sergeant father leads to some of the most touching moments in the book in the form of Dylan's unanswered letters.

Conaghan delivers his story with confidence. The bucket list is a clever device that keeps the book nicely on course and Dylan's charming voice is brought to life with style and humour. In its way, this book is also a lesson in tolerance for younger readers, not just from the point of view of those with disabilities or differences but also when it comes to race, and Amir's experiences.

Anyone who has ever felt a little different in school will enjoy this and it will certainly find readers outside of its protagonist's age group.

When Mr Dog Bites is a sweet and touching novel about learning to cope with the difficulties of growing up and the resilient shield of friendship.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Irish Independent

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