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BOOK REVIEW / Innocence deserted: 'Burning Bright' - Helen Dunmore: Viking, 15 pounds

THIS IS a story of terrible innocence, of lost children out in the snow: the worst thing is that they all believe they know the score. Nadine is a 16- year-old who suddenly finds in the sixth form that she can't read any more: Not university material, writes the headmistress. Her parents have left the country in search of help for her disabled sister, quite happy to leave her to live 'with friends'. She falls in with Finn Kai, a wide-boy who, with his friend Tony, has taken over an old house in the provincial city where the novel is set. On the top floor, like the witch in Sleeping Beauty, lives Enid, haunted by the dreadful death years ago of her lover, Sukey. Before long, Nadine is tripping up the stairs to visit her.

But fairytale archetypes turn turtle in this novel: it's the lover, not the witch, who is a threat to Nadine, especially since he intends to rent her to a cabinet minister with specialised sexual needs. 'I've got to struggle,' says Paul Parrett, showing her how he likes to be tied up. 'Just masturbate the way you normally would.' Helen Dunmore's achievement is to make this seedy world comprehensible, to demonstrate, compassionately, the needs behind the perversions. There are no real villains in this demi-monde, only lonely sinners, and openings of unexpected love and grace worthy of Graham Greene.

Dunmore's special quality is an intense, infectious sensuality. When Nadine, all unknowing, is taken to meet Paul Parrett, she is effectively naked in a cream silk dress that 'feels like skin'. Food is set out with the artistry of a Japanese chef: 'veal ribbons peel away - beautifully from one another . . . They look like the gills of oyster mushrooms.' The boning knife that Tony brings back to the house comes straight out of Bluebeard's rack, 'a knife for which Nadine can't imagine a use. It's long and thin and flexible.' Tony does see Nadine as meat to be consumed and thrown away: 'Take Nadine. She doesn't know anything - or not much anyway. This'll be her first time. She'll be able to give Paul Parrett something that just won't be there in a couple of years . . . They go dead.'

The other characters' fears, compromises and timidities reflect off the screen of Nadine's determined unawareness: weighed down by their fantasies and desires, it is hardly surprising that she has to struggle through to wakefulness. Even more than by the beauty of its language, this novel is distinguished by a moving yet unsentimental portrayal of a young girl's conflicting vulnerability and strength. Will she get through? Helen Dunmore offers no comforting reassurance.

(Photograph omitted)