Submarine, by Joe Dunthorne

Dive deep into a troubled teenage mind – and come up laughing
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The Independent Culture

Fed up with dark mornings, packed roads and under-inflation pay awards? Then hold on – strong and effective comic relief is on its way. This first novel by a young Welsh poet is the sharpest, funniest, rudest account of a periodically troubled male teenager's coming-of-age since The Catcher in the Rye. Started while the author was on the creative-writing MA course at the University of East Anglia, Submarine bristles with one-liners as 16-year-old Oliver dissects in his diary the lives of the adults living around him, in the manner of an anthropologist writing up a previously unknown tribe.

His father is the sort of man who memorises the phone number of Swansea Council's Pothole Hotline. As for his mother, when he tells her that "You are unwilling to address the vacuum in your interpersonal experiences" (quoting from a morning chat show on TV), he is mildly surprised when she does not reply.

Oliver sometimes pretends to have Cotard's syndrome: a type of autism – so his dictionary tells him – where people believe they are dead. There is never any doubt here that living with droll teenagers can be less amusing than reading about them.

This could all seem like previously charted Adrian Mole territory, except that there is also an accompanying note of authentic panic as Oliver watches his nice parents go through a perilously rocky patch in their marriage. Turning to his equally diverting, down-to-earth girlfriend Jordana for comfort, he eventually realises that he is on his own. Even his beloved reference books, so full of obscure words, are no real help as he sets out to wreck his mother's new relationship. Hamlet-like in his prurient curiosity and sensual disgust at the idea of a parent in love with someone else, he manages to prove more help than hindrance as his parents come together again.

Submarine should really have ended there. Instead, in a final section, both Oliver and his author amiably begin to lose the plot. Worries about his gradually unravelling love affair with Jordana offer no substitute for the highly charged writing that has come before. But for teenagers happy to recognise themselves in their weirder manifestations, and older readers willing to recapture a time when the ordinary so often looked and felt extraordinary, most of this brilliant novel, shortly to be filmed, is laugh-out-loud enjoyable as – time and again – Oliver applies his ready, toxic wit to everyone around him.

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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