Saturday, 16 January 2016

Panther: review & interview!

Oh hey there, bookish friends and wanderers who have stumbled across this blog. Ready for a book review??
Book reviews are such fun to write, and I have been trying to do more lately. Part of the reason this one has come into being is that the author of the book has suggested most subtly that I do one, the fool...well actually, he knows he's safe as this most excellent tale made it into my 2015 Best Reads post. Here's a little more on why...


The picture is of a panther AND A BOY. V cool. Took me a while to see, ngl.

So, I met David at the UKYA Lit Weekender at the Southbank Centre some months ago (he spoke on the most excellent panel about mental health – and general health – in fiction) and we chattered for a little too long (sorry, I can be intense) about the wonderful city of Winchester and the uni, our shared alma mater. I bought Panther from a stall at the event, partly because I was so wowed by the reading and then discussion on the panel, and partly because my pal Jack was tweeting me about how great the book was, and basically insisting that I buy it. I take his word as gospel. Oh also, I was fascinated by the story. Obvs.

Panther is about a teenage boy, Derrick, who is suffering in his family home as his older sister is depressed. She's even attempted suicide (his mum is now hiding all the sharp kitchen utensils). What's more his parents are split up, his best friend has turned on him with all the moronic meat-heads at his school, and he's suddenly seriously overweight. So...things are rather shit for Derrick. Then he hears news of a wild animal roaming his suburb, being hunted but never caught by the authorities. An invisible beast, a panther. Derrick takes it upon himself to catch it.

I found this a fascinating read as it provides another angle on depression; the family of the one who is afflicted, and how it affects them. How heartbroken it makes them and at times downright resentful they are towards her. The story communicates how much of an effect depression can have on a person - Derrick complains that Charlotte's always crying, always locked away in her room screaming. For no reason, allegedly.

A favourite part of mine was when Derrick had a proper discussion with his dad about personal matters; without spoiler-ing here, the dad of the family had some personal struggles of his own and said that they may have contributed to the end of the marriage between the parents. 
Another favourite part was, weirdly, when the best friend got his come-uppance for betraying poor Derrick. What he did was just totally uncool. Hearing Hadley (the girl Derrick always crushed on) say 'all he did was stick it in and lie there' was oddly satisfying, too. Maybe because Derrick enjoyed hearing it so much...
Yes, my empathy for Derrick was immense as the story continued. An interesting thing I found was that the book was written in third person and yet Derrick's inner monologue, his hopes and fears, his thoughts that became actions, were so perfectly communicated! His personal reasons for eating a whole lot more suddenly and as a result putting on loads of weight - ultimately his need for control and this being the best way he could get it - are somehow completely understandable. As is his yearning to catch this beast in his suburb - he needs the personal victory, to be hailed a hero in his town and of course impress others. The school bullies maybe, the girl he loves...his family, too. 

One other genius factor in the tale has to be the panther, the beast in the shadows, and its use at times as the perfect metaphor for depression. Derrick's obsession with defeating it, capturing the thing that's causing such drama and pain...well, it was much like his sister's dark diagnosis. At times it felt like Derrick was so upset and angry that he couldn't control that awful thing in his life, so he had to take on a project, something else he actually could exert a little power over. Maybe. Could he?


So, I was able to email the excellent David Owen and ask him a few questions about the book...

​~ Where did the initial idea for Panther spring from? Was it a moment, a discussion or a maybe just a word? 

I grew up on the border between Penge and Beckenham in south east London, and one of the only things of note (except that the latter is where David Bowie did his first performances, *sniff*) about these suburbs is the persistent rumour of a wild panther on the loose. It's been spotted enough for the rumour to have some credence, and the police have even been out with a helicopter to look for it (remind you of anything from the book?) Plus a friend of mine, who is rational as they come, thinks he saw it, and can't offer any other explanation. 


So! I always a bit taken by this idea, and wanted to fit it into a story for a long time. Separate to that, depression is something that has affected my family for many, many years. My older sister suffered with it very badly as a teenager, and at that age I really struggled to understand just what the heck was going on. It was only later, when I was diagnosed with it myself, that I really began to understand.

Somewhere along the way it struck me that the panther was a perfect metaphor for depression: dark, powerful, lurking under the surface of daily life, something many people refuse to believe exists. I used the idea to draw on my personal experience, and that's how the book happened!

~ The suburb in which the story takes place seemed rather specifically designed; did you see a certain place that you liked for the story, or maybe do any location scouting to help inspire? 

It's based really heavily on my childhood home, which I'm sitting in right now, in fact! It's suburbia, and there's an allotment out the back, where the panther has been sighted a couple of times. In writing the book I made a lot of changes, specifically making the allotment much bigger, but it is altogether similar.

~ What made you want to tell a story of the family of someone with depression? Rather than having a main character with mental health issues?

As mentioned in my first answer, depression is something I've seen from both sides. There were times growing up when it really felt like depression would tear my family apart, and I felt really powerless. And baffled! I just couldn't understand it. What did she have to be depressed about?! So instead of being supportive, and trying to help, I almost certainly made it harder for her. It's only later that I realised how terribly I behaved.

I hope that by focusing on the family around the person directly suffering, and how they fail to understand and communicate, it might encourage people to do the opposite of that. There's still huge stigma around depression and mental health, and by being more open and supportive, more willing to talk and understand, we can start to dispel that.

It's also something of an apology to my sister. Thankfully things didn't end quite so badly for us, but it was a close thing at times, and I wish I'd done more to help. I don't want anybody else to make the same mistake.

~ Why did that thing happen at the end that broke my heart? (Legit question)



Okay, so, I've got a bit of stick for this, and I genuinely think it might have hurt the commercial prospects of the book, because I think most YA readers want hope and happy endings. But that wouldn't have been right for Panther. There may be spoilers ahead!

That thing happens because I thought it was important to show that it's a very real possibility if depressed people do not have help and support. Suicide is responsible for something like 20% of deaths in young people. Which is ridiculous. It's a horrible thing to do in the book, and it was so painful to write, but I felt it was the only honest outcome. All the characters around Charlotte are convinced that if she gets her grades, and goes to university, her depression will magically disappear. They pin their hopes on external circumstances, and fail to understand that it's so much more profound than that. If she was alright in the end, after getting her grades, it would have proved them right. It would have felt like a magical solution, something which simply doesn't exist. This family doesn't communicate properly, so they can't understand and offer support, and what happens is a very real possible consequence.

Some reviews have said that they read it as depressed people having no hope, no other possible outcome. If it reads that way, I am so, so sorry. That isn't my intention at all. Suicide is never the solution. But it still happens in huge numbers, and I had show that. It's too important to ignore.

~ And finally, I have to ask this one obvs...where is your favourite spot in Winchester? Any perfect writing spots in that funny old city? 

It's not terribly original, but I think my favourite place on the planet is the top of St Catherine's Hill on a sunny day. I've been up there with friends to muck about or sunbathe, I've been up there alone when I was heartbroken, and it used to be part of my running route (in my fitter days!). It's a beautiful spot, and it means so much to me. Oh, Winchester 


~ See other reviews & buy Panther here! ~
~ Follow David Owen. Do it. He is brilliant, funny and has a cute cat. ~
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1 comment

  1. Great review and interview, Gracie! I absolutely loved Panther! As someone who has been in Derrick's position (though didn't act in the same way, due to having my own support), I really sympathised with him. Although I didn't resent the people who were suffering, I often felt lost and powerless at being unable to help. No-one wants to see the people they love so much crying over something you simply can't comprehend. Obviously, depression isn't a quick fix, so as I got older, it was still there, but in it's way, I guess that helped me; the older I got, the more I was able to understand exactly what depression is, and there's nothing you can do to make things better, you can only be there for them and love them. But I've definitely felt lost like Derrick did, and found Panther such a wonderfully powerful story. I absolutely loved it!

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