Review written by Hannah Froggatt
‘Panther’ by David Owen is a coming of age YA novel focusing on the relationship between the teenage protagonist, Derrick, and his older sister Charlotte. Ever since Charlotte was diagnosed with major depression, her illness has been tearing the family apart. The stress has led Derrick to develop a compulsive eating disorder. However when he hears that a Panther has recently escaped from a local zoo, Derrick thinks that maybe capturing it can be his salvation, that maybe stopping the beast in it’s physical form will be enough to save his sister too.
When you first pick up Panther, you’re struck by its veracity. The characterisation is masterful. Derrick, our protagonist, is a perfect blend of naïvety and worldliness: perceptive enough to see his family is falling apart but ill-equipped to help them. Charlotte’s barbed interactions with Derrick are the best parts of the book, managing to be both sardonic and tender whilst digging right to the heart of Panther’s central theme of understanding — and accepting what we can’t understand. Despite some slightly self-conscious discussion of social media, Owen’s grasp of teenage world-views is sterling.
So is the depiction of mental health disorders. Few writers manage to depict such illnesses this dispassionately, but more impressive is Owen’s understanding of the three-dimensional presence of issues like depression. Derrick’s bewilderment at Charlotte’s behaviour — and his own — is completely genuine, and an excellent standpoint from which to explore how it affects those nearest sufferer and how it disrupts the narratives of our lives.
The only thing that doesn’t work is, unfortunately, the central metaphor. Derrick’s obsession with the escaped panther supposedly roaming his neighbourhood feels jarring and childish for the character’s years. The panther is meant to represent the depression that preys on Derrick’s family, but this clumsy attempt at magical realism clashes horribly with the blunt naturalism that makes the rest of the story so powerful.
Panther aside, it’s still worth a read. The beautiful character-craft and unblinking exploration of mental health make it thoroughly worth your time.