Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant by Joel Golby – review

The Vice journalist’s debut collection switches nimbly between the poignant and the absurd

Joel Golby is a man of words. He loves words, by the tens of thousands, as evidenced by his features for irreverent/cool culture brand Vice, which are frequently tests of endurance but never, ever dull. His wonderful dissections of the cynical cash grabs that are the property rental ads of London, and earnest yet amusing dissertations on anything from sex doll hotels to Robbie Williams, have rightly won him legions of fans. Now Golby has channelled his considerable energy and limitless wit into his debut book – a memoir of sorts presented as a collection of essays, rants and musings.

While he is best known for his humour, the opener – Things You Only Know When Both Your Parents Are Dead – makes it clear that we’re going rather deeper (Golby’s parents had both died by the time he was 25). It’s a body blow of a piece; a clear, evocative and often funny essay on the absurdities of bereavement (“This is another thing they don’t tell you about death: how, logistically, getting rid of two-and-a-half kilos of ground Mum is a nightmare”).

No matter how ridiculous the next chapters get – and occasionally he can be punchable – the impact of the first can be felt throughout. Using a blend of insightful self-deprecation and almost lovable braggadocio, Golby tackles subjects big and small with the same forensic thinking and enthusiasm. We head to the desert for a camel festival – “Known colloquially as the ‘Miss Camel’ beauty pageant… which suggests camels in thick rouge and red lipstick, stiltedly walking on stilettos” – and are also treated to a tribute to Rocky IV, Golby’s experience with drugs, the bewildering inconsistencies of clothing sizing conventions, and the posing and answering of a million questions you would never think of asking. Could he win a fight against the red and yellow M&M’s from the adverts that speak like mafia dons and, while we’re at it, do they have genitals?

Among the highlights is Golby’s takedown of the sociopathic buy-to-let landlords who are choking the property market to death with their deposit-snatching claws. “If the universe is just,” he writes, after describing a couple of his weirdest rented housing setups, “it will, just once, let me watch my landlord die.”

While Brilliant, Brilliant has no narrative thread, making it a book to dip in and out of rather than devour in one sitting, Golby is great at switching between the poignant and the absurd, observing life both with the wonder of a toddler who has just discovered where you hid the crayons and the confidence of the friend who tells you “I got this” before attempting to fix your vacuum cleaner.

As dazzling as he is at the fantastical, Golby is best when he’s talking about family and relationships. The book ends almost as it began, with Golby’s parents, this time celebrating the birth of the author. Even though we know how the story ends, there is humour and hope. Using the word “brilliant” five times in the title is a risk, but Golby’s memoir earns the right to at least four of them.

Adam Kay is the author of This Is Going to Hurt

• Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant by Joel Golby is published by Mudlark (£12.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Adam Kay

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Negroland by Margo Jefferson review – a brilliant memoir about race in America
Margo Jefferson’s exploration of the African American experience runs the gamut from the personal to the historical

Anita Sethi

22, Jan, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Becoming by Michelle Obama – review
The former first lady’s wit and warmth shine through in an extraordinarily candid account of her life inside and outside the White House

Peter Conrad

18, Nov, 2018 @8:59 AM

Article image
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds – review
Alex Preston’s literary compendium of birds, illustrated by Neil Gower, is a sumptuous labour of love

Katharine Norbury

02, Jul, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen – review
The singer’s candid memoir sheds light on his long-standing battle with depression

Neil Spencer

26, Sep, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Other People’s Houses by Lore Segal – review
Segal’s lightly fictionalised account of her time in England as a Jewish refugee is both moving and timely

Oliver Bullough

17, Jun, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
In Your Defence by Sarah Langford – review
A barrister’s tales of Britain’s crumbling legal system and the victims caught up in it are required reading for our policymakers

Catherine Baksi

15, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Only Girl by Robin Green – review
No areas are off limits in a vivid account of life as the only female writer on Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s

Barbara Ellen

20, Aug, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Wintering review – learning to love the cold
Katherine May brings a poet’s eye to this enthralling celebration of our fallow season

Kate Kellaway

04, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Autobibliography by Rob Doyle review – charmingly provocative
The author and critic reveals his weakness for lugubrious writers in this mischievous, enthusiastic guide to his favourite books, interspersed with reflections on his druggy youth

Anthony Cummins

27, Dec, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
In brief: Morning; Elmet; The Long Forgotten – review
Allan Jenkins’s hymn to the early hours, Fiona Mozley’s fascinating Booker contender, and an ambitious mystery

Ben East

18, Mar, 2018 @12:00 PM