The right kind of quirky

by Joe Dunthorne

I have heard a lot about this book over the past couple of years, including some fascinating interviews with the author about his second book, released last year. So I was very pleased when a friend offered to lend me both book and film.

It’s the story of Oliver, a teenage boy in Swansea with an overactive imagination and slightly detached emotions who somehow managed to draw me in without being an entirely sympathetic character. The book is set in 1997 and 1998, making Oliver’s world not very far removed from my own teenage years. Like a lot of 15 year olds, he has a lot on his plate. There’s mock GCSEs, girls, staying on the right side of the school bullies, his dad’s depression and his mum’s flirtation with her hippy ex-boyfriend. It’s a lot for one year, even without Oliver’s slightly unusual coping methods.

His way of dealing school bullies? Become one himself. Not that he’s ever the leader, but he hangs around with the bullies and views himself as one of them, though others don’t see him as a bully, which is just one of the clues that he is not an altogether reliable narrator. Another clue is his early visit to a physiotherapist, which Oliver arranges so that he can tell his parents he is seeing a therapist, which he hopes will make them open up to him. When he realises he recognises the doctor from his neighbourhood he starts to discuss various neighbours and is perturbed to be told that all his invented theories about them are wrong. So he decides that the doctor must be a compulsive liar.

There are two girls in Oliver’s life – Zoe, also known as Fat, and Jordana, another of the group who hang out with the bullies. Zoe is the prime subject of their bullying but Oliver can’t help noticing her perfect skin and thinks about ways to help her become a stronger person and not a victim. Jordana caught Oliver’s eye with her love for pyromania but since her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour she is getting softer, which Oliver dislikes.

Oliver’s narration is pitch perfect. He is intelligent, with a love of words and meanings, but his skewed view of the world produces a lot of humour. He does not see the ridiculousness of some of the situations he creates for himself. His attempts to save his parents’ marriage are at times extreme, but the fact that he is trying so hard for them is undeniably sweet. And it’s reassuring to see that he is not as cold as he can sometimes appear.

I did not laugh out loud but I did find this funny and very real. I am definitely interested in Dunthorne’s second book.

As an aside, the film of Submarine, directed by the excellent Richard Ayoade, is also very good. Though some details have been changed and for some reason Ayoade has chosen to not give the action a firm setting in time, he captures the mood of the book perfectly. How unusual: a book and film adaptation of it where I rate both highly!

First published by Hamish Hamilton 2008.