One of my favorite things in books as I’ve grown older is when a city (or urban landscape) is so deeply a part of the story and atmosphere that it becomes a character in its own right. When I was a kid, not so much. Then I mostly cared about fantasy landscapes, about going through the wardrobe into somewhere different, with a MAP! (and dragons, if at all possible). Roddy Doyle’s depiction of Dublin in Brilliant, is the happy medium between those two. Readers can hear the life of the city, feel it, see it in the eyes of his characters. At the same time, it’s not overpowering. Character voices (including that of a meerkat named Kevin) steal the spotlight in this charming, modern middle grade fantasy.
Illustrated throughout by a bright new talent and told through the masterful dialogue for which the acclaimed Roddy Doyle is known, Brilliant is a very special book with a storybook feel.
Gloria and her older brother Raymond (Rayzer for short) are mostly happy, even when they’re squabbling. They know life in Dublin has changed, but they don’t know what caused it. When their Uncle Ben comes to live with the family, they are determined to learn why, even as they enjoy his presence. On one eventful night, they and the other children of Dublin run the town, from the zoo to the water – meeting talking animals, learning the power of language, and chasing the specter of an enormous black dog.
When I finished this book, I couldn't help but grin at the joy it brought me and the laughter and tears it provoked. In that moment I didn't care who it was written for, I just knew that it had been a good read. Not five minutes later, I was deep in conversation with two wonderful fellow bloggers, and they lamented a new rash of middle grade fiction that seems to be written "for adults" rather than children.
I let that digest a bit, and by the end of the night I was afraid that my glorious experience with Brilliant meant that it was indeed "one of those" books. I've been thinking about it ever since, actually. And here's what I've decided: 1) Yes, the story has a "moral" and at times reads a bit like a fable about how children can cure the ills of the world (and that's not a message I endorse 110% but we'll leave it for now). 2) It will appeal equally to adults AND children. For *very* different reasons.
What adults will like: The book's accessible treatment of depression, the fantastic writing (especially the dialogue - which Doyle is really a master of), the positive and hopeful themes, and the romp through Dublin (an expert tour if there ever was one). What kids will like: The sibling hijinks, the talking animals, forbidden nighttime adventures, the quest to do the right thing, jokes, and victory at the end. The book might not work for every reader, but there's something in it for readers of all ages.
Listen, if you haven't read Roddy Doyle yet, do. He writes hilarious, beautiful, tragic, wonderful stuff. You can feel Ireland in every page, and his books for young readers have hints of the fantastic throughout. Also: Emily Hughes’ illustrations are an A+ addition to the book.
Recommended for: all ages fans of stories about family and doing the right thing, for anyone looking for a great read aloud pick for the 7-10 year old set, and fans of Lauren Oliver's Liesl & Po.
Brilliant will be released in the U.S. by Amulet (Abrams) on September 8, 2015.
Fine print: I picked up an ARC of this book for review at BEA 2015. I did not receive any compensation for this post.