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The M Word

The M Word

Brian Conaghan
Bloomsbury YA
ISBN: 9781408871577

Characters in a Brian Conaghan novel never have it easy. 17 year old Maggie Yates is struggling to maintain a relationship with someone once pivotal to her life who has chosen to leave her. She talks to her every day, tells her everything. Her best friend. She tells her when her dinner lady mum loses her job, starts constantly crying, then gives up even getting out of bed and opening the curtains in the morning. She tells her about her winning plan to cheer her mum up by finding her a rich boyfriend. The only trouble is that her best friend can't answer her back. Moya died months ago, hounded by internet trolls, and Maggie blames herself, the failure friend. As if that wasn't enough, her mum sinks quickly into severe depression and it seems Maggie is losing her, too.

The M Word (now available in paperback) is a sensitive and insightful examination of how the human mind and body react to the loss of someone once essential to existence and about how to cope with the pain and the grief. It sounds grim and, in less capable hands, this would be a bleak, hopeless and sobering read; miserylit at its finest. But this is Brian Conaghan, so The M Word is brimful of hope too and guaranteed to make the reader smile: the blackest humour balances the heartbreak and hope for the future shines through the bleakness of Maggie's situation.

Conaghan excels at creating completely authentic characters and spiky, sharp-tongued, straight-talking, streetwise, quick-witted Maggie doesn't disappoint. Like Bobby in The Weight of a Thousand Feathers, Maggie excels at witty one-liners and put downs. She's a fighter, she's angry at her situation, she's bolshy, she bites back and isn't, outwardly at first, particularly likeable, but she's also hugely vulnerable; battling her mum's serious depression, the loss of her alcoholic dad, the death of her best friend and her own self-harm.

Conaghan, as always, offers no easy fixes but with courage and resilience hope always finds a way. Maggie, driven by a fierce love for her mum and a dogged determination to make something of herself, starts art college and forms a band. Her future, by the end of the book, looks hopeful and realistic and has love at the heart of it. Another winner!

Another compelling novel dealing with depression and grief is The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton. Similarly spiky female lead characters take centre stage in Home Girl by Alex Wheatle and in Indigo Donut by Patrice Lawrence. The Boxer by Nikesh Shukla also looks at fitting in and finding where you belong.

Slightly younger readers should be pointed in the direction of Lost by Eve Ainsworth or A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill for a poignant look at grief and mental health.

352 pages / Ages 14+ / Reviewed by Eileen Armstrong, school librarian


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