Title: When Mr Dog Bites
Author: Brian Conaghan
Format: Hardback (372 pages)
Synopsis: Dylan Mint has Tourette’s. For Dylan, life is a constant battle to keep the bad stuff in – the swearing, the tics, the howling dog that escapes whenever he gets stressed. And, as a sixteen-year-old virgin and pupil at Drumhill Special School, getting stressed is something of an occupational hazard. But then a routine visit to the hospital changes everything. Overhearing a hushed conversation between the doctor and his mother, Dylan discovers that he’s going to die next March. So he grants himself three parting wishes: three ‘Cool Things To Do Before I Cack It’.
Number One: Have real sexual intercourse with a girl. (Preferably Michelle Malloy and definitely not on a train or any other mode of transport. If possible, the intercoursing will be at her house).
Number Two: Fight Heaven and earth, tooth and nail, dungeons and dragons for people to stop slagging my mate Amir. And help him find a new best bud.
Number Three: Get Dad back from the war before you-know-what happens.
There are two things I should mention about this book before I get into what I thought about it. One is that there is a LOT of swearing and offensive language, so if that bothers you then this probably isn’t the book for you. There are also a few sections which are a bit uncomfortable to read, like when Dylan is taunted by bullies in the park. The author is giving an honest (sometimes brutally honest) portrayal of the kind of treatment mentally ill people can face, but it was a bit upsetting at times. Secondly, it’s VERY British. There’s slang, figures of speech and references on almost every page which readers outside of the UK might not be very familiar with. That being said, the vast majority of these can easily be understood in the context in which they are written, and shouldn’t be an obstacle for international readers.
Dylan’s character is not one you will often encounter in books. His Tourette’s causes him to swear a lot and say inappropriate things, but it also has a profound effect on the way he thinks. His thoughts are fast paced and energetic, and also very descriptive, which I loved. There are similes and metaphors everywhere you look, written with a unique Dylan twist. Sometimes he also adds in popular culture references and rhymes into his descriptions. Here are a few examples:
“This drove me round the Oliver Twist.”
“Mum’s head was wagging like a dog’s tail and her body was Shake, Rattle and Rolling.”
“No mistake, sugar cake!”
He also says “a-mayonnaise-ing” instead of amazing, which I think is really fun and made me smile every time I read it. The author is Scottish, so Scots language words pop up every now and then. Examples include eejit (idiot), lugs (ears), bahookie (butt) and mingin (disgusting). I’m Scottish myself so I’ve been hearing these words all my life, but they might seem a bit odd to people not familiar with them. In general, the slang works for the story and Dylan’s characterisation though, and allows the author to produce some brilliant descriptions and dialogue. “Pain in the bahookie” just sounds funnier than “pain in the ass” if you ask me!
The way Dylan’s thoughts are written provides a wonderful insight into the workings of the mind of someone with Tourette’s. It’s both chaotic and poetic. There are no moments of calm or chances to take a breath, which I imagine is what it must be like for someone with Tourette’s. I enjoyed his process of trying to figure out what was really going on with his family, and how he reacted to the twist later in the story, which I won’t spoil for you.
The concept of Mr Dog is also interesting. Dylan has personified his illness, which makes it easier for him to set himself apart from it and try to deal with how it affects him. I could definitely relate to this as I do the same with my own health condition, though mine is a gremlin, not a dog! When Dylan gets angry or stressed out his Tourette’s gets worse and harder to control, causing him to start ranting and swearing uncontrollably. He refers to this as “Mr Dog coming out.” The typography used in these moments definitely adds to the effect.
Dylan is an honest and loyal person who genuinely cares about the people in his life. This is particularly apparent in his friendship with his best friend Amir, who has autism. They both have disabilities and struggle in social situations, so they don’t care about each other’s ticks or unusual behaviour, they just get on with chatting about how much they hate the school bullies and the chances of Dylan getting to date Michelle Malloy. It’s a very accepting and tolerant friendship. Dylan is very protective of Amir, who is the target of racism from his peers. It’s sweet, and also funny, when Dylan’s Tourette’s occasionally makes him insult Amir too, and then when he tries to apologise he ends up insulting him more! Amir doesn’t mind, though, because they’re best buds. Both my brother and cousin have autism, so I was very interested to see how the author would portray Amir’s character, and I’m glad to say that I think he did a good job. Amir’s way of expressing himself and his anxieties were believable and I really felt for him when he was scared about losing his best friend.
I was going to write about a few of the other characters, like Michelle Malloy, Dylan’s mother and her friend Tony, but then I realised I didn’t really remember much about them or really care that much, which is not a good sign. They weren’t bad characters, but I don’t feel much for them one way or another, although Michelle did grow on me later in the novel as she interacts with Dylan more and more. I think the focus was so much on Dylan that the other characters weren’t developed quite as much as I would have liked.
That being said, I would still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in getting inside the mind of someone with Tourette’s. It has similarities with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Asperger’s Syndrome) and The Shock of the Fall (Schizophrenia) in that it allows the reader to get an insight into what it’s like to deal with a difficult mental condition. Also, there’s some great humour in there, including some cracking Cockney rhyming slang!
Overall Rating: My bookworm rating system is explained here. It would have been four bookworms if the other characters had been fleshed out a bit more.
Other Works by this Author: Brian Conaghan has also written The Boy Who Made it Rain.