The hounded by Simon Butters
Wakefield Press, 2016. ISBN 9781743053959
(Age: 16+) The black dog is a common metaphor for depression and in the initial stages of this novel, the appearance of one to teenaged Monty seems to indicate exactly that. Monty has an eating disorder, is underweight and has an unnatural lack of appetite for food. His personal hygiene has declined to the extent that he rarely washes, smells and looks dirty as he dons the same filthy clothes day after day.
Home life for this teenager is grim as his mother has a severe psychiatric illness and endlessly chain smokes, confined to an extremely dilapidated house which she believes is being entered by persons unknown who steal its contents. Monty's father, obviously trying to escape the pressure of the dysfunctional household seeks refuge in his work and has little interaction with his son who is clearly suffering from neglect in a home which fails his basic, everyday needs and gives little structure to his life.
It is no surprise that visions of a black dog might be interpreted as depression, however in this novel the creature develops to represent something even more sinister and dangerous. Without giving the plot away, there are many elements of teen trauma in this novel (perhaps too many) and the reader is never quite sure if Monty's conversations with the dog convey thoughts which he is working through or whether he really is having delusional interactions with a talking dog.
Where school should provide some refuge of normality and routine, Monty is largely invisible except when being attacked by violent thugs, cyber bullied or tormented by popular students who manipulate and determine social acceptance versus pariah status. When Monty is noticed by Eliza, the most beautiful and popular girl in school, he is naturally overwhelmed by her attention and finds himself in places and situations which are unfamiliar and challenging to him.
There are some really unappealing behaviours and traumatic experiences on display in this novel. Luckily this is balanced to some degree by kindness, decency and aspects of recovery.
The inclusion of so many traumas and miserable elements made this story too 'busy' in my view, yet some might argue that it is a sad but realistic portrayal of life for some teenagers. My stance may be old fashioned and naive, however I have concerns that novels with elements as bleak as this has can emphasise a sense of hopelessness with young people, especially if they are in an emotionally vulnerable state.
This is an edgy and different story in which the author has worked hard and with success to describe scenes in which the reader can see the dirt and share the pain. It will appeal to many adolescent readers and I caution school staff to give thought regarding those for whom it is appropriate to read for study or pleasure.