Submarine by Joe Dunthorne is not a book that I was likely to find and read on my own. It was pressed into my hands by someone who thought that I might like it. It’s a first novel by a Welsh writer that is geared towards a teen audience. I finished this book a few weeks ago, and I’m still trying to decide what I think of it.
The narrator of the book is Oliver, a 15-year old boy in Swansea, Wales. Oliver initially comes across as a completely unlikable teen. His approach to high school is based on Darwin’s survival of the fittest. He has an I will pick on you because you are weaker than me and I need to maintain my own standing so I suggest you toughen up mindset. At the beginning of the book, Oliver sets out to see a therapist (that turns out to be the wrong kind of therapist) purely to get a reaction from his father. His relationship with his girlfriend Jordana begins when she blackmails him and seems to be based upon the fact that she would be willing to be in a relationship with him as something to do rather than mutual attraction or affection. It’s tough to care about these kids as a couple.
Eventually, Oliver begins to become a sympathetic character. To be honest, I almost bailed on the book before he became remotely likable. Oliver has his first encounters with adult situations – e.g., his first sexual experiences, his first brush with the serious illness of someone close to him, his parent’s fracturing marriage, a too close encounter with his mother’s infidelity, etc. Oliver’s reaction to these real life dramas is usually on the continuum of poor to very poor.
It slowly began to dawn on me that 15 year-olds are unlikable in general. They think that they are adults, but they behave unpredictably on the whims of emotion. Dunthorne’s novel is almost sadistically true to the stereotypical adolescent experience. There are some passages in this book that make for tough reading. Since I’m so conflicted about whether I’m glad that I read this book or not, I have a hard time offering it a recommendation to anyone else. I hope that someone else reads it though so that we can compare notes.
Second Opinion: The LA Times reviews the book today (very positively) as well.