When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

When Mr Dog BitesA review by Nalini Haynes

★★★★★ five out of five stars

Update

For those receiving updates wondering why this review has been altered/updated: the bit between the spoiler alert and the spoiler ends has been altered to reflect important new information from the author. Do NOT read that section if you don’t want end-of-novel spoilers. I wouldn’t read my comments until AFTER reading the novel. Seriously. Just read the novel. That is all.

Review

‘Mr Dog’ is Dylan Mint’s euphemism for an extreme incident of Tourette’s syndrome twitches and expletives. When Mr Dog Bites is Dylan’s story of his final year in a special high school, told in the first person, complete with misunderstandings.

Dylan’s best friend Amir is the son of Pakistani immigrants. Socially isolated due, in part, to complying with cultural and religious requirements, Dylan is Amir’s only friend.

Dylan’s mum takes him to hospital for a doctor’s appointment. Dylan is not part of the conversation – apparently fairly typical of his interactions with his own doctors – but overhears enough to convince himself he will die in March. Dylan draws up a bucket list, which includes having sex with the girl of his dreams and finding Amir a new best friend.

Michelle Dylan’s dream-girl. When Mr Dog Bites objectifies Michelle at first because Dylan is the point of view character and a teenage boy. I swallowed my distaste and persevered. As the story unfolds we discover Dylan knows Michelle fairly well, including understanding Michelle’s diagnosis – oppositional defiance disorder as well as physical disability – but he’s besotted with her regardless. [awww]

When Mr Dog Bites introduces so many social issues I’m unsure how to do the novel justice without spoiling the story. The issues include:

  • disability
  • normal teenage issues
  • generational miscommunications
  • miscommunications due to others making assumptions and assuming control of a disabled person
  • single parenting
  • teen sex and related issues
  • disability and sex
  • special schools and related issues
  • bullying
  • drug use

The non-judgemental manner in which these issues are raised as part of X’s life will enable discussion from high school classrooms to adults’ book groups, from carers to people with disabilities themselves.

[Spoiler Alert]

I have reservations about one aspect of the conclusion: there is a quick wrap-up – an almost perfect solution for Dylan’s Tourette’s syndrome – ready for a song-and-dance happy ending. If the conclusion was based on the author’s personal experiences, I would have fewer reservations about a magic wand at the end of the story.

Bloomsbury, the publisher, has shared the author’s explanation for the tongue blade mentioned in the novel:

…what I tried to write was not a book about Tourette’s Syndrome or the facts behind it, I wanted to write a book of fiction. Not a book about how some guy with Tourette’s overcomes his Tourette’s…

…It’s fiction and I wanted some tiny kind of resolution to Dylan’s problems.

Real life doesn’t follow neat narrative arcs with resolutions at the conclusion. While I understand the author’s intent — creating a satisfying conclusion — I’m a bit over the ‘disabled person gets cured/healed’ trope. This is a personal bias not a literary criticism; I’m interested in hearing other readers’ reactions, particularly reactions from people with disabilities.

[Spoiler Ends]

When Mr Dog Bites falls into literary fiction and Young Adult categories alongside John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (unlike Our Stars, you  won’t need boxes of tissues for Mr Dog) and Will Kostakis’s The First Third. I highly recommend When Mr Dog Bites for readers of any age from middle school (depending upon maturity and reading level) and older.

★★★★★ five out of five stars