Monday, April 14, 2008

Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan

Last week, I fell in love with a fourteen year old boy and his brain tumour. Anthony McGowan’s Henry’s Tumour is a dark, sick, funny and incredibly moving account of one teenager’s very visceral grappling between his good, sweet and incredibly uncool side and his evil, nasty, cancerous side.

Hector Brunty is a good kid with a big problem. He has a brain tumour, Henry Tumour in fact, who talks to him and makes him do and say bad things. And it’s killing him. At the most difficult time in his life, adolescence (duh) Hector is battling with a big, bad wolf inside of himself…but then aren’t we all?

McGowan’s triumph is in making the book’s two competing voices of id and ego equally compelling and lovable. Hector, our sweet but ineffective boy hero, has a wonderfully distinctive voice which veers between the darkly witty, the endearingly clueless and, best of all, the baroquely eccentric, as he rhapsodises on maths, junk food, and school sex goddess Uma Upshaw’s marvellous rack. The following rumination on his Mum’s decaying perfume made me snot with laughter on a packed circle line carriage;
The other bottle was perfume, given to Mum years before by someone who couldn’t have known what she was like. She didn’t use products that might have been tested on animals, although putting perfume on a rabbit and sending it out to a a nightclub in a slinky dress to see if it pulls doesn’t seem too cruel to me. Only kidding. I know they pour it in their eyes.

Henry is a vile, despicable, self-centred idiot, but importantly, everything he does, he does for Hector. We love Hector, so it’s therefore hard not to love Henry. As Hector’s tumour, he is, of course, the thing that threatens to kill him. But he is also the voice in Hector’s head that impels him to indulge in every thrill and whim he desires before he kicks the bucket. So, while he gives Hector the courage to ask Uma Upshaw out on a date, his lecherous desperation means he screws it up. Henry risks ruining Hector’s blossoming romance with shy, friendless, Amanda and her enormous facial birthmark, because she’s a nobody. Worse of all, he tempts Hector into ditching his kind, loyal, but pretty tragic friends (a beautifully drawn bunch of sweaty, sniffling, scoffing but supremely intelligent and sweet boys).

Nevertheless, as Henry goads Hector into getting a haircut, shoplifting and sticking up to the school bullies, you cannot help but root for Henry, especially as Hector’s cool quotient rises expotentially with Henry’s influence. As Henry wins over the ladies, gets closer to his mum and, in the best playground showdown ever (involving a used condom and a bag of Revels) beats the school bullies, you can’t help but feel your eyes mist over as you wish Henry could stick around without killing Hector. But, shucks, he’s the selfish, snarky, self-destructive ego, and if Hector’s going to grow up, he has to learn to manage and suppress him. Dammit. Thus, the book ends with a pretty major hospital visit.

The book is packed full of brilliant touches. Everything from the chapter names to the font of the chapters is executed with flair, thought and love. As Mal Peet said on reviewing the book when it won the 2006 award “I recently had the rare pleasure of presenting the Booktrust teenage prize to a novel which begins with the word "Arsecheese" and ends as a five-page cartoon strip.” Not only does that take guts (and props to Doubleday Definitions for publishing such a weird, wonderful book) but it takes a helluva lot of talent for a writer to get away with such shenanigans.

Of course, it’s all very clever. The relationship between Hector and Henry Tumour is apparently meant to directly parallel that between Henry IV and Falstaff (no, I didn’t spot it at first, but Henry ups his Shakespeare references the closer to death he gets…and then dreams of dying in green fields…Oh!). Like the great Bard, McGowan makes you root for Henry Tumour while all the while wishing he would die and let Hector fulfil his life’s potential by becoming, well, in this instance, just a man, but he sure looks like a king from where I’m standing.

It’s brash, vulgar, anarchic, disgusting and embarrassing to read in public. There’s enough four-letter words to land it an X-rated certificate and more noisy bodily functions than a club toilet. But it’s also incredibly sympathetic, wise, and above all, it bears the hallmark of a writer who loves and understands his audience. Like fellow naughty schoolchildren of teen and children’s fiction (Roald Dahl, Melvin Burgess, Judy Blume, Julie Burchill) this book is written with such respect, affection and compassion for its audience that I wish I could hand it out on the street like Hari Krishna’s do with their free Buddhism books.

I may still be in the first flush of new love, but from where I’m standing now, Anthony McGowan’s Henry Tumour is one of the best young adult fiction books I have ever read. (See also Junk, Sugar Rush, Forever, How I Live Now (post from July 07) and, that homicidal classic, George's Marvellous Medicine.) I just wish McGowan had been writing when I was fourteen.

I wish I could say the same for David Almond’s Skellig. Now that’s an overrated read. Sublime, poetic, subtle…and really rather dull. It’s a short book, but I had to renew my library loan twice. I mean, come on, do we really need another angel/coming to terms with mortality book. Sheesh.

Bring on the bad tumours and groping girls in graveyards I say.


At 14 April, 2008 22:11 , Blogger paddington said...

I really don't wanna say this buuuuut...

Henry Tumour - humour.

Will the blants gag ever end?

Good to have you back in cyberspace anyway darling vicarage. (Dicarage.)

NOW will you read Naomi Klein?

At 15 April, 2008 08:32 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that was nice. Probably the nicest thing ever written about any of my books. Sadly, Hector and Amanda are quite happy together, otherwise ...
But thanks for that, thanks very much indeed. If you liked HT, you'll probably also like Hellbent (my first book), but maybe not my latest, the much more sombre The Knife that Killed Me.
Kindest regards
Anthony McGowan

At 15 April, 2008 12:54 , Blogger darling vicarage said...


is that really Anthony McGowan. I'm sitting at my desk, eating a cheese sandwich, and squealing. Can you get starstruck in cyberspace?

Okay, relax. If that is indeed you, I'm glad you liked my review. Obviously I didn't write it to be nice, but because Henry Tumour is one of the best books I have read all year. So thank you for writing it.

At 15 April, 2008 15:17 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup, that's really me. And I agree with you about Skellig which, like all DA's books is pretty po-faced. Beautifully written of course, but ...

Anyway, keep up the good, er whatever it is you do.

There's a mildly amusing quiz thing you can do, here:


At 16 April, 2008 19:01 , Blogger darling vicarage said...

Quiz duly taken - I scored 13–18

"Things are looking up. I detect signs of genuine unpleasantness here. You're really not very nice at all, are you? But wait, no, there is still a tiny spark of – yuck – decency buried deep within. Take my advice and snuff it out, then come see us again."

Heh heh.

Thank you for your quiz Mr McGowan. I'll try and be a good girl from now on.

*yea, riiight*

Hellbent and the Knife That Killed Me are already on my reading list.


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