The Dream Of Doctor Bantam is the somewhat-enigmatic title of the debut novel by Jeanne Thornton. Initially it’s hard to determine to what the title might refer. It seems to suggest something archaic or scientific – two descriptors which could not be more inappropriate for the first chapter of this story.
The book opens with young protagonist Julie and her older sister Tabitha taking a late-night post-argument trip to an International House Of Pancakes. The relationship between the sisters is touching, complex and beautifully-portrayed. It comes as a shock, therefore, when in the second-to-last sentence of the chapter we learn that Tabitha is now dead from a road accident.
The brutality of this revelation is typical for Dr Bantam. As the novel unfolds we see Julie struggle to cope with the emotions of grief and loss, and struggle also to make some sense of the process of growing up. One of my favourite scenes involves Julie going through her recently-deceased sister’s things. She finds a book with a dedication to her that she never received, and snorts her sister’s stash of coke.
“Eventually the feeling came back to her face; by that point she had taken a lighter to the notebook. She masturbated with Tabitha’s purple speckled vibrator and she fell asleep again on the floor, curled in the blanket.”
The lines are delivered with the same glib brutality as Tabitha’s death, but there’s always a kind of quiet compassion underneath. Dr Bantam isn’t cruel to its characters for the sake of it, but instead reflects the cruelty of the world.
Dr Bantam himself makes an appearance later on, when Julie becomes involved with a mysterious and enchanting woman named Patrice, a member of a cult called The Institute, one of the respected figures of whom is the titular doctor.
If you think that the protagonist’s involvement with a cult is an odd direction for the story to take, then you’re right. But this novel is built on odd directions, strangeness, darkness, sudden violence and the wildness of youth. The presentation of the book is similarly intriguing, with punkish, hand-drawn illustrations fronting each of the long sections, and an intermission in the middle. It’s the kind of thing, you get the sense, that Julie herself would have liked.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.