Bookshops might soon need a new section. A new genre has emerged in recent times, with at least a couple of solid additions every year. This new genre would collect together all the books that look at troubled teenage boys with learning difficulties and mental health issues and document the dangerous situations they create for both themselves and others. What this genre would be called, I don’t know. But off the top of my head I can think of a fair few novels that could join its ranks. At its inception, we’d have Vernon God Little and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and in more recent times we could include Ciaran Collins’s The Gamal (one of the best books of the decade so far) and Nathan Filer’s Shock of the Fall. And these would be just the best and brightest examples.
2015’s first contender for ‘troubled teenage boy’ (I don’t know, you think of a name) book of the year is a debut novel from James Rice. Alice and the Fly has all the tropes that are becoming so familiar. Greg, the protagonist, is a schizophrenic. So there’s the disease. He is writing, as they so often are, a kind of journal – although in this instance it is more of a love letter. We find out early that Greg’s illness has led him to commit some act which has required the involvement of the police. Readers of this newly created genre will recognise that as a key component. And there’s even a girl that almost sees beyond the illness.
But that isn’t to say that the book doesn’t seem original in any way. Like The Gamal before it, Alice and the Fly separates itself from the pack through its unreliable narrator. Both novels do a fantastic job of making readers sympathise with their main hero, while also adding in small sections of interviews or other documents that question what they tell us. It’s subtle, but attentive readers will see reasons not to believe everything they’re told. This is a difficult trick. But when an author gets it right, it adds an extra level to a tale that has maybe already been told.
And James Rice definitely does get it right. In Greg we have a lovable lad, one whose obsessions, phobias, and visions would create empathy in the most cruel of people. We have a character who faces all the family issues and teenage problems that we all remember, only hugely amplified by his schizophrenia. We have an outcast. An underdog. All the things readers of the genre love. But we also have somebody that might be lying to us, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Any Cop?: It takes something special to stand out in this packed field, but Alice and the Fly does. There’s an ease in the writing, an intrigue in the tale, and enough unreliability to leave you with a lot to think about. A probable candidate for a few first book awards.