Monday 18 July 2011

Book review : Skippy Dies - Paul Murray

I had heard so many good things about Skippy Dies that when I plucked it off my "to be reviewed" bookshelf, I settled down filled with contentment and a sense of anticipation, expecting a really good read. I wasn't sure what to expect exactly but it was bound to be good. The critics' quotes on the back cover all seem to praise the same qualities : "A blast of a book ... big, generous, heartfelt, funny and sad" - Irish Times ; "Hilarious, heartbreaking, totally engrossing. A triumph" - Daily Mail ; "One of the most enjoyable, funny and moving reads of this year" - Guardian ; "Darkly comic, dazzles, every line drips ideas for fun. Unputdownably funny, captivating. A masterpiece" - Metro ; "Noisy, hilarious, tragic. A carnival of a novel" - The Times. OK, so it'll have us rolling in the aisles then ?

Well, I think the joke somehow went over my head. I had the sense of being the only person in a crowd not to get the punchline at a comedy show, looking around in bewilderment and slight embarrassment as everyone guffaws and wipes away tears of laughter and you're left sitting there thinking "eh ? I don't get it" ! I just couldn't reconcile the recurring themes of the book - bereavement, sexual abuse by priests, unrequited love, bullying, drug abuse, eating disorders, arson, teenage mal-être, promiscuity - with the words "hilarious", "comic" and "funny". There were times when I did find it darkly comic and little witticisms had me grinning - such as the pupils nicknaming the priest with the dodgy reputation , Father Green, who teaches them French, "Père Vert", a cutting and very clever take on "pervers", French for pervert ! - and the banter and high jinks in the boys' dorms are often very funny, but I found much of the subject matter depressing and even felt slightly uncomfortable reading it.

The first 200 pages of the book felt rather slow and heavy-going. In the opening scenes, Skippy and Ruprecht, room-mates at Dublin's Seabrook College for Boys, are in the middle of a doughnut eating race when Skippy turns purple, falls off his chair and dies. But in the next chapter, with no explanation, he's back, and life - with all the ups and downs that teens, especially those in a single-sex boarding school, go through on a daily basis - goes on, leaving us asking the questions : Have we gone back in time ? Did it really happen or was it a dream ? Was he pretending ? Did he get better ? All will be revealed (and the title of the book does offer a very big clue !) but the first third of the book seemed to wander around in a miasma of strange events, eccentric characters and a lot of existential questioning, including scientific experiments involving an embryonic time machine and a lot of tin foil ! Maybe this was due to the setting of Dublin but at times I felt like I was wading through the pages of James Joyce's Ulysses, with the ghosts of Molly and Leopold Bloom looking over my shoulder as I read and nodding appreciatively !

The writing is undoubtedly clever and masterful, but at times it seemed just a bit too clever. As it segues seamlessly from drug-fuelled dreams and video game sequences to real life tomfoolery in the dorms, the boundaries between real life and fiction become slightly blurred, just as Ruprecht hopes to blur the boundaries between this life and the next.

The characters seem a bit too stereotypical to me - the school sporting heroes ; the overweight, French horn-playing class genius ; the disillusioned young teacher ; the priest with an unhealthy liking of little boys ; the diet pill-quaffing tarty girls at St Brigid's School for Girls next door who have the Seabrook boys' hormones in effervescence...

The book looks into the hearts and minds of the whole school community, from teachers and pupils to the acting headmaster and even those on the periphery, such as the parents or the employees of the ill-fated doughnut shop down the road. The rapport between the boys in their dorms and their interaction with their teachers, particularly Howard the Coward, is endearing and realistic and once we'd delved into their psyches far enough to understand their motivations and personalities, I really started enjoying the book. The turning point for me was the disastrous school dance and from that point on, I really started to get caught up in the tales of life at Seabrook - the romances, the bullying and the teenage dramas.
It was an enjoyable read but for me, didn't quite live up to the hype.

star rating : 4/5

RRP : £8.99 (but only £5.78 on amazon)

Paperback: 672 pages
Publisher: Penguin (7 April 2011)
Language English
ISBN-10: 9780141009957
ISBN-13: 978-0141009957
ASIN: 0141009950

Other reviews you may be interested in :


  1. I love to read, although for the past 12 months or so I've been buying e-books to read on my Sony reader rather than buying 'paper' versions. I still pull the paper ones off my bookshelves to read when I'm in the bath though 'cos I'm convinced I'd drop my reader in the tub and ruin it (this has already happened with phones, although best not to ask what I was doing with a phone in the bathroom ;-)
    I've seen this book advertised a lot and was thinking about getting the 'e' version. I probably won't now though because life is too short to read about subjects such as abuse and bereavement.

    I think I'll stick to a good old aga saga or a crime novel where I know what to expect.

  2. never heard about this till now!

  3. LOL.....thought this was skippy the kangaroo, cos I remember when Mog died!! ( daughter was heartbroken and she was at uni by then)

  4. Oh no just reading supergrans post and realised Mog has died, I never knew that, now I am feeling sad!

    I like reading but Martina Cole is more my type of book or I love autobiogra.phies

  5. Finally! Somebody else who refuses to catergorize this as a 'comedy' regardless of other reviews. I think I liked Skippy Dies a bit more than you did (I'm a science nerd, after all and loved Ruprecht!) but I wholeheartedly agree that it is far darker than many people think as it explores the inevitable disconnect between its characters. Thanks for the review!

  6. Thanks for your comment Cmixgeek xx

    and supergran/bloomers - you had me in stitches with your comments too !


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