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'Benny and Omar' is an aquired taste. Written by best selling author Eoin Colfer, it is inherently Irish. And the quote line at the bottom of the copy I have reads 'There is hardly a page which will not have a reader laughing aloud' - The Irish Times. Well, maybe if your Irish. I did find passages of it amusing and I laughed aloud maybe twice. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this story.
'Benny and Omar' is the story of an Irish boy forced to move to Tunisia when his dad gets a new job. The first few chapters are set in Ireland where we learn all about Benny's love for hurling and his hate for his younger brother George. George is the complete opposite to Benny. Benny is wild and naughty. George is a mummy's boy and into drama and the theatre.
So when they arrive in Tunisia, to live in a gated community of other ex-pats from various places in the Western world, what we have is a fish out of water tale. Benny makes no attempt to integrate with the other children. He hates the school, which is taught by two hippy Americans, and antagonises most of the other students. He is flippant and wise-cracking throughout. The thing that changes Benny is when he meets Omar. Omar lives in a hut of his own making just outside the walls of the community. He has managed to wire up an old TV to the cable from the complex and this is what first draws Benny in. Benny is desperate to watch the hurling final, which his team have finally made after many many years.
Omar is a fantastic character. He is older than Benny, perhaps 15ish, but around the same size. He rides a moped, takes Benny around the city, and speaks only in TV English. This is a very clever device from Colfer that enables us and Benny to understand someone who otherwise would only speak Tunisian/French (or should that be Arabic? - sorry for my ignorance.) So when Omar says, 'Benny, Omar, Bee Gees' we know he is refering to them being like brothers. 'Tetley's Ooh in Typhoo' means 'Would you like a cup of tea?', and so on. Benny understands him, so do we.
Benny thinks nothing of Omar's life style at first, but soon he comes to care about his friend. And when Omar's sad story is revealed bit by bit, and Benny meets Omar's sister, who has been institutionalised, the story takes a turn away from comedy and becomes more of an adventure.
In fact Benny does some truely awful things in the course of the story and is not a likeable character at all for a lot of the time. The children who read the book with me found it hard to empathise with him. They also did not get the humour at all. Bits that had me chuckling, mostly the bits with Omar in, they just didn't get. A lot of the TV references are dated now, and had to be explained. Not many children know about 'Chips' or 'The Dukes of Hazzard'. And the language used is leans towards Irish speech patterns, even though the story is told in third person. There are a lot of authorial 'your man's, that the children also didn't get. What they did enjoy was the adventure element, the suspense as events unfold at the end of the story.
I think it has been very well told, and is clever in its telling too. But it is not a book for for children under 13 or children who have not had a wide life experience. Not because the content is unsuitable, but because they just won't get it, it will all be lost on them.