(2021) Kirsten O’Neal, Quirk, £9.99 pbk, 382pp, ISBN 978-1-683-69232-4
“Ticks don’t actually have teeth” begins Kirsten O’Neal’s debut novel and as someone who is constantly walking the dog out in the countryside, in long grass, or forest walks inhabited by deer who are a tick magnet, I’m probably aware of that. I’m certainly checking the dog for ticks and occasionally my legs when I have shorts on. Sadly, the same can’t be said of Priya, the lead character in Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses who encounters a tick and then gets Lyme disease and her life is turned upside down because of pain and exhaustion, and all her dreams, hopes and ambitions are put on hold as well as her studies as she has to leave her premed classes at Stanford and return home to her loving, but oppressive, family in New Jersey and try to recover.
One lifeline is her online pen-pal, Brigid, and their ongoing dialogue through text and chat, and even though they have never met and could live anywhere, they actually live reasonably close (in United States terms) to each other, but while Priya is upfront about her illness, Brigid is pretty vague about her own illness and the cause of it, but soon they are members of a larger support group of young people spread across the world who all have chronic illnesses and label themselves “oof ouch my bones” and meet up regularly using something called Discord, whatever that is (okay, I’m an auld geezer, and this is a book for young adults) and have user names like “paranormaldetective”, “bigforkhands”, “mereextravagancy” and “spookyspoony”. These other members of the group have a range of problems that mean they suffer from chronic pain, they also have illnesses that don’t look obvious and are constantly the recipients of comments about “not looking ill”, or giving advice on different alternative therapies to try. When Brigid goes offline for several days, Priya gets worried about her and decides to steal the family car and drive to Brigid’s house, only to find, not Brigid, but a snarling, scary creature in the basement. Given some of the symptoms Brigid has revealed – losing her teeth, craving meat, becoming aggressive - things start to add up in Priya’s mind, could her friend actually be a werewolf?
Thus, what O’Neal delivers over 39 chapters, containing a whole lot of texting and chat-speak, is a totally different werewolf novel. No silver bullets, no wolfsbane, no curses, or getting bitten by a dying werewolf, or encounters with other supernatural beasties, and no love triangle, but where Lycanthropy, is as it says on the tin, or on the cover of the novel, is just another chronic illness, but one that might be able to get treated by investigating werewolf legends, looking at family genetics and ultimately seeking a medical cure.
Lycanthropy and other Chronic Illnesses contains the three “F’s”, it’s funny, it’s furry and it’s about friendship: a friendship that will bring a smile to the reader’s lips and maybe a tear to their eye. Yet while I’m not the target audience by almost half a century, I’m sure younger readers will enjoy it even more, and might understand some of the chat speak that just zinged over my head.
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