Book Review: Going Bovine, by Libba Bray

Please note that this review includes a discussion of a rather obvious plot point, but one that you might still prefer to discover on your own! If you haven’t read Going Bovine yet, you might want to hold off. Or not. I’ll let you be the judge, given that you are capable of making your own decisions when provided with information that contextualises the nature and possible consequences of your choices, gentle reader.

In Going Bovine, we’re introduced to Cameron, who’s just trying to live his life in relative peace, despite some recent unsettling events. He’s not quite sure what’s wrong, but something definitely is, and it’s not just the apparent hallucinations he’s experiencing; the sudden bouts of violence aren’t quite right either. A few trips to the doctor later and his whole life falls apart when he’s diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapidly progressive neurological disease[1. The book’s title, and characters within it, make reference to the idea that he has ‘Mad Cow’ (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis), which is actually a related condition but it’s not the same thing. Both are caused by rogue proteins called prions that destroy brain tissue, but CJD comes from human, not bovine, neurological tissue.]. Suddenly hospitalized with only weeks or months to live, Cameron encounters a punk-rock angel who sends him on a quest to save humanity, accompanied by a classmate and a Viking god trapped inside a lawn gnome.

On the one hand, Going Bovine is about a hero’s journey as Cameron and his friend Gonzo zigzag across the South in search of the people and things they need to prevent catastrophe, picking up Baldur along the way. At 16, they’re young adults exploring the world without their parents for the first time and they get into all the trouble one would expect, and have all the experiences one would expect as well in a surreal world where it seems like anything might happen.

On the other, of course, Going Bovine is really about the fact that this is all taking place entirely in Cameron’s mind while he lies largely unresponsive in a hospital room, waiting to die. His detailed and fantastical hallucinations, right down to his one chance at love with Dulcie the angel, are about the life he couldn’t live because of his disease, and the heroic nature of his hallucinations hints at some regrets as he realises that his life-long mission of just sort of coasting along meant that he missed out on numerous opportunities to actually live, and now it’s too late.

Periodically, we see Cameron’s hallucinations interrupted with strange flashes of his time in hospital, with visits from nurses, his parents, and his sister. These images are seen as bad dreams by the Cameron who inhabits the hallucinatory world, and he struggles to push them away into the back of his mind rather than confront them; he understands that he’s sick, but he’s convinced that he’s escaped from the hospital to complete this one last task before his death, not comprehending that he’s never going to leave his hospital bed again.

This is a dark book about life and death, although it may be wrapped in an entertaining romp through the lives of two teen boys. I’ve been reading a lot of YA focusing around female characters, which I’m an immense fan of, but every now and then it’s nice to take a break and go to the world of a well-written teen male protagonist, which Cameron definitely is. Though there’s certainly no reason Going Bovine couldn’t had been told from a girl’s perspective, there’s something about the gonzo, libertine nature of the tale that sweeps you away on what you very much see as a male fantasy.

But this is not quite an ordinary male fantasy, and Going Bovine challenges norms of masculinity and how people think about young men even as it explores the classic tradition of the often masculine-oriented hero’s journey. Cameron’s companion Gonzo, after all, has dwarfism; they meet in the hospital, where Gonzo is an old hand and Cameron is a terrified and confused newcomer. And Gonzo’s experiences as a dwarf (how he refers to himself) are very much an important part of the text and the way he relates to people; he’s often patronised, approached by people who want to use him as a tool, and underestimated, but he’s a fully actualised character who takes considerable beef with being constantly treated like a toy.

This goes double for Baldur, trapped in the body of a lawn gnome, who becomes their assistant and accomplice as they work their way to the sea so Cameron can save the world and Baldur can find his ship. When Baldur is kidnapped as a practical joke, the two boys launch a rescue mission, and the bond the three develop as they travel and fight together is immense. It’s a glimpse of what Cameron wishes he had been able to build in his life before the end came, and the kind of life he imagined for himself; there is a sense of quiet longing in many of the scenes of their book and even the most boisterous adventuring feels bittersweet when you’re reminded of the context of all of this, that this is occurring within the last flaring neurons of Cameron’s diseased brain as it struggles for meaning and comprehension.

While the medical science in Going Bovine isn’t quite right on (poetic liberties, however, sometimes must be permitted in the interest of spinning a yarn), the storytelling is, and like Bray’s other work, it’s filled with fantastic uses of language, setting, and characters threaded into a story that draws you in and compels you to keep reading. You can’t help but fall in love with Cameron by the end, and burn with fury when the inevitable happens.