When Uncle Ben’s Dublin business fails, it's clear to Gloria and Raymond that something is wrong. He just isn’t his usual cheerful self. So when the children overhear their granny saying that the Black Dog has settled on Ben’s back and he won’t be OK until it’s gone, they decide they're going to get rid of it. Gathering all their courage the children set out on a midnight quest to hunt down the Black Dog and chase it away. But they aren’t the only kids on the mission. Loads of other children are searching for it too, because the Black Dog is hounding lots of Dublin's adults. Together – and with the help of magical animals, birds and rodents – the children manage to corner the Black Dog . . . but will they have the courage and cleverness to destroy the frightening creature?
Ray and Gloria's Uncle Ben has moved in with the family as things have become difficult for him recently. The kids adore their Uncle Ben and are initially very excited, but they quickly discover that all is not ok. Instead of sitting around chatting loudly into the night as they used to do, Ben and their parents do little but mumble quietly so the kids can't hear what they are talking about. One night the kids manage to overhear the conversation, and they hear their Gran mention a Black Dog, saying that it has got their Uncle Ben and has the whole of Dublin in its grip. The children take it on themselves to track down this Black Dog and vanquish it from their city, and along the way they are joined by a variety of talking animals and more and more of the city's children.
Brilliant is Roddy Doyle at his best. It is a wonderful modern fantasy story that also manages to cover the difficult subject of adult depression with sensitivity, but without ever dumbing down for its young audience. Mental illnesses such as stress and depression seem to be far more prevalent in today's society, and it can be very different for children to understand why previously joyful loved ones now struggle to get out of bed in the morning, or sit staring into space for hours on end, or start crying with seemingly no reason. By using the 'Black Dog' as a physical manifestation of the depression that permeates through a city whose residents are going through significant financial difficulties, Roddy Doyle helps his young readers to understand the nature of depression.
The story itself is almost fairy tale-like in nature, with kids battling against an evil monster, especially when you throw in the talking animals. It has humour, action, cracking dialogue (would we expect otherwise from Roddy Doyle), and also moments of extreme pathos. It is the kind of book that will make you grin from ear to ear, but it might also make you cry as well. However, the greatest message is that of the power of laughter, especially that of innocent children, and its this that had the story lingering in my mind long after I had finished reading it.
Whilst reading Brilliant I had a feeling that I had read it somewhere before, or something like it. A quick internet search showed that is was originally published as a short story some time ago, and yet, unlike Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which also started off as a short story (and to me felt it was padded out to make a longer book), Brilliant always feels like it was written as a complete book from the start.
This is a cracking book for 8-10 year olds, and if studied at school in PSHE lessons it may even be suitable for Year 7s because of the discussions in would promote. It could also be used on a one-to-one basis with children whose parents are struggling with depression, although a little caution would be needed as this is a fantasy story and as such there is something of a 'happily ever after' ending to the story.
My thanks go to the fab people at Macmillan for sending me this read via netgalley.