Oliver Tate is not your average teenager, but in some ways he is. He does what is necessary to fit in at school, wearing his safety goggles on his head, skipping classes and takes part in the bullying of one of his classmates. He takes sex advice from Chips, the ringleader of his group, and is hyper aware of his parents shortcomings. But at the same time he has an intelligence and curiosity that isn’t shared by his peers, and an investment in his parent’s relationship that means he monitors the dimmer switch in their bedroom with far too much intensity.
Despite his analytical approach to life, he’s a bit of a romantic. He likes Jordana because she’s tough and sets fire to things, but cooks her a candlelit dinner, and when he suspects his mother of adultery he organises a stakeout because he wants his parents to stay together. Like all teenagers, he gets things wrong, some of them astronomical, but he does try to put things right again. Even if he can’t understand why Jordana might want to burn things, or why his mother seeks the company of an ex, the reader can, and it reminds you that despite his intelligence he’s just a teenager and there’s only so much a teenager can handle, and should have to handle.
There are things that threaten the bubble around Oliver and Jordana. Her mother is seriously ill, his parents marital issues and his father’s fight with depression all remind him that there is an adult world that he has little control over, which is perhaps why he tries so often to take charge. In one moment, when his father is drinking water with lemon (a clear sign of his depression) Oliver coaxes him to go to a funfair, and fake his death on an electric chair machine. Somehow he knew it would help his father, and this gives us a glimpse of the caring, considerate Oliver he tries to suppress. He accuses Jordana of going soft, but really there’s a underlying softness in him as well, and it isn’t a bad thing.
I was prepared for Submarine to be a nostalgic read. I grew up in South Wales, in a town just over ten miles down the road. Joe’s ice cream and Dan Yr Ogof caves were a part of my childhood, and hearing familiar colloquialisms like ‘cwtch’ and ‘tamping’ (when you’re very, angry) made me more than a little homesick. What I didn’t expect was for Dunthorne to capture the secondary school experience so realistically, in such few words. A sentence here and there is all that is needed to illustrate the delicate social hierarchy of school. The teenager in me wholeheartedly approved.