Children’s Books: Roddy Doyle restores Dublin’s funny bone

Brilliant, by Roddy Doyle; Charm and Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn; Popular: A Memoir, by Maya Van Wagenen; and Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide

Brilliant: Roddy Doyle originally wrote his new book as a story for the 2011 Dublin St Patrick’s Festival. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Brilliant: Roddy Doyle originally wrote his new book as a story for the 2011 Dublin St Patrick’s Festival. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Our economic recession and its impact on individual and nation alike may not seem a likely subject for a children’s novel, particularly one intended primarily for a preteen readership. But, as Roddy Doyle’s Brilliant (Macmillan, £10.99) demonstrates, it is possible to deal with such themes in a way that, while acknowledging the seriousness and hardship of the situation, manages to do so with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour.

The jargon of politics and economics has to be discarded in favour of an awareness that beneath these abstractions there is a story of everyday human beings, children included, to be told. It is in his construction of that story and, especially, in his richness of characterisation and dialogue that Doyle excels.

We are in the Dublin of 2013, a city and time in the grip of a financial depression. A huge cloud, we read in the novel’s opening paragraph, had covered the city, in time transforming into a fearsome “black dog”, roaming the streets and spreading gloom. Among those affected are the Kelly family: parents Pat and Una, children Gloria and Raymond, Una’s mother and Ben, Pat’s brother, moving in with them when his business closes. The interplay of child and adult understanding of, and response to, family difficulties is portrayed extremely effectively. The children, with their imagination and initiative, may well remain children, but they are well aware of “the silly, secret world of adults”, where the father is heard to say, “I just feel so bloody powerless. What a bloody country.”

Gloria and Raymond’s resourcefulness in confronting the forces represented by the black dog gives Doyle the opportunity to devise a magical nocturnal cross-city chase, taking in some of Dublin’s best-known landmarks. The city’s seagulls and some of the animals from the zoo – all gifted with the power of speech – make their mischievous contributions to the outcome of events, but of deeper significance is the part played by the multitudes of other children who join Gloria and Raymond in restoring the funny bone to a city long deprived of laughter. They are the harbingers of happier times. Chris Judge’s black-and-white illustrations are totally in keeping with the spirit of Doyle’s prose: his black dog is, in every sense, awesome.

Three quarks for Muster Mark! Just as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake it is a nice coincidence that a young-adult novel arrives bearing as its epigraph a quotation from Joyce’s novel: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” The book in question is Stephanie Kuehn’s Charm and Strange (Electric Monkey, £7.99), a debut novel that is as complex as its choice of Joycean reference might imply. This, incidentally, is merely the epigraph for the novel’s opening section, entitled “Before”; the second, entitled “After”, comes with a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. No concessions here to the notion of an easy read.

As these section headings suggest, the novel operates on two timescales, switching in alternate chapters from the experiences of Andrew Winston Winters, a nine- or 10-year-old American child, to those of the same boy grown into a 16-year-old adolescent. These alternating chapters, labelled “Matter” and “Antimatter”, deal with the years between, focusing (often in harrowing terms) on how the traumas of Andrew’s childhood have continued to haunt him. They have engendered feelings of anger, bewilderment and despair. Additionally, they have engendered fears of an encroaching violence, threatening to transmute him from human to animal. What he describes at one point as “the dark rhythm of our family” has penetrated his being, a darkness (and a rhythm) depicted by Kuehn with an intensity almost visceral in its painfulness.

Readers with some knowledge of the arcane world of quarks and hadrons – there’s a very adolescent joke about hadrons and a term easily confused with the word – may well derive an extra pleasure from Kuehn’s novel, especially where its structure is concerned. But no such knowledge is required to empathise with the 16-year-old who reflects as the book ends on what he has lost: “My family. My identity. My innocence.”

Teenage popularity guide All three figure also in Maya Van Wagenen’s Popular: A Memoir (Penguin, £7.99), though the American teenage world depicted here could hardly be more different from Kuehn’s. Written when its author was 15 and set in today’s Texas, the memoir follows the events of a school year in Maya’s life as she attempts to put into practice the advice she has encountered in a 1950s manual of social etiquette, Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide. Penguin has usefully reissued Cornell’s book as an attractive hardback (£9.99), affording today’s teenagers the chance to be amused (and bemused) by the attitudes and assumptions of an earlier generation: try keeping a straight face as you read, in the “Good Grooming” chapter, Cornell’s endorsement of the garment known as the girdle.

Maya relays the outcome of her social experiment with a great deal of hilarity, but there is more light and shade than one might expect. The dynamics of school and classroom life are entertainingly (and often innocently) observed, and Maya’s metamorphosis from “modern geek” into a much more self-assured young woman is touchingly portrayed.

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