We would have to say that Brilliant, whilst not exactly a polariser, did have its fans (some who just loved it) and its critics (some who forced themselves to finish it) but also a group who just didn’t connect with the story. It was interesting to note that in the two groups one group received the book much more positively than the other – it also depends on the personalities within our groups as to our reactions.
We began by talking about Roddy Doyle – many of us were quite familiar with his adult work and possibly everyone at least had seen The Commitments. Some of the group were introduced to another of his junior fiction novels A Greyhound of a Girl, a wonderful inter-generational story of women, which had been short-listed for a number of awards. We noted that Brilliant had its origins as a short story for St Patrick’s day and some of us felt it would have been more effective had it stayed in that format.
This novel has an unusual structure with a prologue and epilogue from the dogs’ point of view and then the other chapters are told in third person narration, but with the focalisation changing from character to character. Sometimes it is Gloria’s eyes we are seeing through yet at other times we had insights into the thoughts of other character such as her mum. We thought the map of Dublin was a useful addition and enjoyed the black and white illustrations by Chris Judge. We were divided on the prologue and epilogue – some of us thought they were delightfully funny perceptions of the animal world whilst others just didn’t get the point to them.
What we all did agree on was that the greatest strength of this novel is Doyle’s ear for dialogue and the capturing of the Irish voice. For those of us of Irish heritage we could hear the Dublin tone and expression coming through very clearly. The section on the word “brilliant” – the busiest word in Dublin on pages 79-83 was particularly humorous. At times there are some laugh out loud sections in the novel as we are exposed to quirky characters such as a Meerkat called Kevin, sarcastic flamingos, offended seagulls, Ernie the Vampire and farting dogs. The biggest criticism of this novel was the length and repetition in the chase scenes – we thought they went on and on – perhaps they had been padded out to turn this from a short story to a novel.
Doyle, very cleverly if at times protractedly, gives a glimpse into the adult world through the child’s eyes. We could relate to his description of adult discussion and the subtleties between chatting, talking and mumbling. He very adeptly describes the dynamics of the extended family unit and some of the scenes between the grandmother and the rest of the family are laugh out loud funny. The members of the group who had Irish parents or grandparents, or grandparents who lived with their family, could really relate to these scenes.
Thematically this is a novel that deals with some very serious issues but we thought it was handled quite well. The metaphor of the “black dog” of depression hanging over the city as an enemy of the people, and the role of the children to restore the city’s funny bone, was a very clever device to bring to light an illness that affects many families. We talked about the economic depression that had been experienced in Ireland this century and the devastating impact that had on families. What Doyle does so well in this novel is illustrate how the creeping fingers of depression have struck at nearly every family – in one family it is the dad, in others the uncle, the brother, the mother. He also shows that depression strikes at the heart of our fears – darkness, snakes, loss of control – as even the children could feel the heavy weight of worthlessness descend upon them under the dog’s influence. Doyle describes the confusion and pain that the child in the family experiences by not being able to get through to the family member who has the mental illness. It is ultimately, though, a story about hope and the power of optimism and energy when a community bonds together for as is stated, “The Black Dog of Depression hates kids … You’re the future” (p199-200). Of course, our group recognised that depression is a very complex issue and there are no simple solutions to this illness that affects a large proportion of the community, but it is a topic that should be discussed out in the open to dispel the stigma and shame previously associated with mental illness.
Some of the group were unsure how this would be received by the children in their schools. It was felt that some readers would read this literally and miss the message of the book when reading alone – and that is entirely appropriate if that is where they are at. If was thought that children might get more out of it, on a deeper figurative level, if it was studied together. We also acknowledged that we only see the children in our care for a glimpse of their day – who knows what is going on in their home lives? As depression and mental illness are still hidden away by many people in our community some of the students might have family members who are depressed and perhaps this book will speak to them.