Trials of a tumour

Trials of a tumour

Joseph Heller meets Richmal Crompton in this excruciatingly funny book about teenager Hector Brunty. If Catch 22 laughed paradoxically at bureaucratic shenanigans under Heller’s masterful, irreverent touch, Anthony McGowan looks at teenage life through Hector’s eyes. At the same time, there’s a touch of Crompton’s William Brown in Hector.

McGowan attacks teenage angst with a potent weapon: comedy. A one-time nightclub bouncer, who has a PhD in Philosophy and has been a journalist and civil servant, Anthony McGowan’s witticisms stand out.

Henry Tumour comes after Hellbent, another side-splitting story about a teenager, who is sent to hell—where he discovers a heck of a lot about life. In this story, Hector learns that he has a tumour. If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, Hector also discovers that his tumour can talk and has a name, Henry.

Henry’s arrival changes Hector’s life. Egged on by the occasionally abusive and frequently funny inhabitant in his brain, Hector, the nerd—and a nobody—becomes Hector somebody. Henry helps Hector take on the school bullies led by Chris Tierney and impress the school ‘goddess’, Uma Upshaw. Among other things, he advises Hector on haircuts and fashion too.

Henry Tumour is at once amusing, pithy, gloomy, obscene and profound. The fact is that despite perking up Hector’s life, the tumour is slowly killing him. Moreover, there’s no help coming from Hector’s mother, a dreamy ex-anti-nuclear political activist and peace marcher, who is sleepwalking through life. But there is no hint of self-pity from Hector or false sympathy from his friends. When Hector reveals the fact about his deadly disease to his friend Stan, the latter reacts by asking him whether he has broadband. Both proceed to find out more about tumours on the Internet.

Brain tumours, finds out Hector, “are the biggest cause of death by cancer among teenagers and young adults (they only count as number two among actual kids, because of ‘good ole leukaemia’) and that, compared to lots of other cancers, treatment is still pretty hit and miss… Of course, if Henry was one of the nastier types then I was well and truly shafted."

The boy then goes about trying everything to keep Tumour from making too many decisions on his behalf. The conversations between the two are engaging. Sample this:

Hector: Well, I can’t imagine that you’ve got anything constructive to say about death. Unless you’re going to tell me that you’re moving out. That’d help.

Henry: I wish I could oblige you there, my friend. But we are bound together in this, like body and soul. Like Romeo and Juliet.

Hector: No way I’m Juliet.

Hector’s philosophy about life is built around the Justice League and mathematics. The Flash and Hawkgirl are the superheroes who matter. His best friends at school, Phil Tester and Simon Murphy—predictably nicknamed Gonad and Smurf, respectively—are equally nerdy. Phil is the history freak while Simon is good at English and has a habit of falling in love at the fall of a beautiful footstep.

As Henry and Hector play out their roles, each wanting to get their own thing, it is time for both to go under the knife. McGowan won the Booktrust Teenage Prize in 2006 for this novel. The London-based Booktrust Teenage Prize was launched in 2003 to recognize contemporary fiction written for teenagers. The winners are selected by writers, publishers, teachers, parents and libraries.

As far as schoolboy novels go—this one ends with a five-page comic strip—Henry Tumour is a hard-as-nails story. McGowan doesn’t go in much for couching his prose softly. He believes his young audience should know life as it is. Served straight in the face without apologies.

The writer is the editor of Heek(, a children’s magazine. Email