Thursday, 19 March 2009

J is for Joe Dunthorne

First off, I have an admission to do with this book. I know the author – we went to UEA at the same time and were in pretty much the same social circle. That said, I’ll try to write the review as if I don’t know the author (lovely boy that he is) so it’s as unbiased as possible. I just wanted to get that off my chest, and now I have – let’s carry on.
“Submarine” by Joe Dunthorne is a bit like Adrian Mole, but not. It’s a bit like my teenage years, but not, because mine weren’t ruled by the penis. It’s like nothing else I’ve read, in a nutshell.
Oliver Tate is a fifteen year old boy (at the beginning, at least) who’s having a few issues with his parents. They don’t understand him, but he understands them enough to know that they need reassurances that he’s okay. Unfortunately for Oliver, these reassurances have a habit of going awry. He goes to a therapist to show his parents what a grown up he is, and also so he can tell them that the therapist said that they need to talk to him more and tell him all of their secrets. Instead, the therapist turns out to be his allegedly pan-sexual neighbour whose car he vomited on after the alarm kept him awake all night. Oliver, in a fit of maturity, tells his neighbour what he did. Of course, the neighbour tells Oliver’s mum who’s obviously even more worried than she was before.

This is the interesting thing about the novel. As it’s Oliver’s diary, everything he says and does, along with everything he says happens, is subject to scrutiny because he’s acting as a natural filter. He writes like most people write diaries – by pretending someone else is reading. That means there’s another censor on his tales, along with the fact that his girlfriend, Jordana, is actually reading his diary (although he knows about this).

Oliver’s experiences reminded me of how I felt at sixteen – nearly an adult but, quite patronisingly, so very far away. It also explains a lot about the boys I knew at sixteen – how they seemed to think about things completely differently, and approach everything in a weird, underhand way. There were times when I wanted to shout at Oliver, and tell him to ring Jordana if he liked her, rather than not think of her at all. It does explain a lot though, and it helped that I’m ten years older and a different gender to the voice of the story.
His parents have problems, which is a problem for Oliver because really, he’s a child in a man’s body. It was difficult to tell whether they were as irritating as they were drawn, or if the teenage filter was tainting Oliver’s view. That didn’t really affect the story, as it’s meant to be Oliver’s tale, from his perspective and coloured with whatever opinion he has at the time.
It made me want to know Oliver as an older person – to see how he turned out and whether he retained his love of words and the keenness to fit in social situations, regardless of the consequences.
I liked that Wales was a character all on its own. Swansea and the surrounding areas were a big part of the diary, but not a conscious one. The reader can see that Oliver loves Wales and his hometown but isn’t yet aware of it. The beaches are lightly sketched with enough detail so they’re easy to visualise. I think it might have been easier for me because I spent my teenage years in Plymouth, which isn’t too far from Wales and has a pretty similar coastline, from what I’ve heard.
Apart from anything else, “Submarine” is funny. It’s the comical touches that prevent the parent/sex stuff from getting too heavy. It’s hard to describe, and my witterings won’t do the subtle nuances of Joey’s book justice, but sometimes Oliver says things or thinks things that I have thought too. Usually he says things out loud that I’ve thought, but have had the tact to keep internalised.

So. I’d recommend this for people who’re feeling a little bit nostalgic, or who want to read something a bit different.

Next week: Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the scenes at the museum”. If Amazon deliver on time. Eep.

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