BOOK REVIEW / Bruises on the apples of our eyes: Mothers' Boys - Margaret Forster: Chatto, pounds 14.99

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MARGARET FORSTER's novels, without being crudely documentary, have increasingly come to engage with contemporary human dilemmas. Have The Men Had Enough? dealt truthfully with the death-in-life of Alzheimer's disease. The Battle for Christabel explored the morally dizzying questions of parenthood and surrogacy. Mothers' Boys once again takes us to the heart of a situation that has recently preoccupied the news media - young boys and violence - and treats of its effect upon the boys' families and upon society. While the boys in this novel are in late adolescence, and so beyond the age of boys A and B in the Bulger murder, that crime comes inevitably into the mind of the reader, perhaps because it was so much more horrible than this crime, which is horrible enough.

Bright, delicate Joe is a bit of a mother's boy, the second son of elegant Harriet and her architect husband Sam. They live in a salubrious lakeside town. Gulls may be heard from their house and Joe makes pocket-money by working in a boatyard. From the first, the story has an air of latent threat: fissures and alliances between the family members are implicit. The difficult inland coastlines that can draw themselves in the relation between mother and son are shown with clarity. The forward motion of the book is initially achieved through Harriet's memory. Under layers of happy recollections she keeps what she cannot for one moment forget - the attack on Joe by two larger boys, one white and one black. The white one absconded; the black one has been sentenced. Joe has survived, physically hale but, naturally, changed by the experience. He flinches from his mother's concern.

But it is more complicated than that. Leo, the black boy, is the son of a white woman killed, along with his black father and in front of his own eyes, when he was three. He has been raised by Sheila, his maternal grandmother, who is in effect his mother, and her husband. Sheila's shirty old father has been like a grandfather to him. Sheila finds it impossible, as mothers do, to believe her Leo capable of violence. When she visits him in the young offenders' institution, he will not speak of the night when the attack took place, though he has confessed to taking LSD for the first time just beforehand, after a visit to a club. Leo's home is close, regulated, but not unduly repressive, and rich in the rhythms and attentions of a fairly conventional urban working-class family. At the same time Leo's existence itself indicates an absence of stifling convention and illustrates the adaptability and individuality such a way of life can sustain.

The two boys are never known to the reader as fully as their mother and 'mother' are. But their blankness does not make them cyphers. Instead, it emphasises the witless force of a mother's love - already frustrated and protective at adolescence, when the boy is fighting to be free of it and yet hungry for it, and even more so after he has had an encounter with the hard world. A mother will love her boy whatever he's like. For Joe, the worst thing - and the thing Harriet cannot stop seeing in her head - was having human shit rubbed in his hair and over his stabbed body. The villainous babyishness of this is not something one can forget. The most one can do is to try not think about it.

Both Sheila and Harriet continue to conduct their lives, of which they are the domestic lynchpins, while thinking obsessively about the events that have brought their boys shockingly together. Margaret Forster offers tautness of plotting without making her book a thriller, which might have trivialised its exploration of family resilience and the necessity for acknowledgment coupled with forgiveness. She has avoided sharp conclusions with her customary intelligence and seriousness. In so doing she protects her novel from the obvious charge of tokenism. Sheila writes to Harriet, and Harriet replies. Their respective envelopes, one small and blue, the other heavy, elongated and white, express the added complications of social class that give the novel a believable extra dimension.

Two catalysing events conclude the novel. Margaret Forster has subtly made them non-events, too, dramas that melt under the heat of daily family demands for food and sleep and pleasure. On the greater timescale that the book's compact but confident use of time permits, the needs of the young to love and of the old to get on and die move the story along and go some way towards healing the pain it depicts.

Margaret Forster is a writer of trustworthy and satisfying novels that amply fulfil their apparent ambition, to relay experience and shed a rational light upon it. Her prose is plain and workmanlike and the reader need never fear being brought up short by an effect striven for and missed. There is a sense in which she aerates the sticky mass of life and its entanglements, processing and working through them with trenchant fairness. Her books do not fly, but I am sure that they help people to carry on walking upright.

(Photograph omitted)