Review: When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

A novel about a teenage boy with tourettes syndrome who overhears a conversation between his mum and the doctor which seems to suggest he is going to die in less than a year. So he creates a bucket list and sets off to complete it.

This is an odd book to review and I’m going to put why up here at the front. On the positive side of things it is an entertaining story with interesting characters and sections of great writing and character development, the negative side there are a lot of conversations which are more sexist and homophobic than I think is necessary. I don’t mind the crude language and the inclusion of some prejudice comments because it is certainly something you would hear at any school, even a special school. My issue is with the sheer amount – it gets quite cringeworthy after a while. Women (apart from Dylan’s mum) are typically described by either their legs or their breasts or how much the main character wants to have sex with them and just about every derogatory term for gay men is used by one or other of the characters. There’s also a considerable amount of racism in conversation, typically directed at Dylan’s best friend Amir.

The fact that there is so much of the above that it detracts from the main storyline is a genuine shame because the story has a solid start. It is barely held together admittedly in the realm of logic because I can’t really see a teenager who listens to adults speaking about his premature death not immediately asking any kind of question that doesn’t directly include, “Why am I dying?”. The author skips around the context that Dylan missed in what he overheard (in both the original discussion and in a later one) to such an extent that it does get a little bit silly and I had worked out what the context was long before the big reveal. As silly as it is, it does prompt some daft misadventures for Dylan which are entertaining to read.

Alongside this is a more serious storyline about Dylan’s father and whilst the book ends with a letter from Dylan to his father that seems incredibly out-of-character and inconsistent with his character from throughout the rest of the book, this storyline provides something of a mature foil to the ridiculousness of the main storyline. It underpins a lot of the interactions – both positive and negative – between Dylan and his mum who had some good scenes together throughout.

It’s difficult to say how well done Dylan’s tics are portrayed. I do not have many verbal tics and my tics are not observational, so it’s not easy to say whether their portrayal is well done. Perhaps predictably, Dylan has coprolalia as part of his tics – involuntary swearing – which is the form of tics which gets the most attention despite only affecting a relatively small number of people who experience tics. What I found interesting were his descriptions of experiencing “Mr Dog”, where he experiences a build up to his barking and howling tics which he describes almost as though he loses control to “Mr Dog”. This is quite similar to experiences I have had in the past and Dylan’s emotions around the topic feel quite real.

It’s for these positive reasons that I really wanted to enjoy ‘When Mr Dog Bites’ and, on balance, I would say I did on the whole enjoy reading it. I would read a second book about Dylan and his friends if one were written. It’s just a shame that the extent of crude and offensive conversations was a distraction from the rest of the book, so much so that I found myself skim reading sections to get through them.

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