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The Dandelion Clock by Guy Burt, Doubleday pounds 9.99. The 20-year- old Guy Burt was hailed as pure duffel-coated sex in 1993 when his debut, After The Hole (written while he was still in the sixth form at Charterhouse), came out to rapturous praise. A second, Sophie, swiftly followed. Still only 26, he breaks a five-year silence with his third novel, The Dandelion Clock. It is a menacing, seductive vision of misspent youth.

The narrator is Alex Carlisle, a middle-aged artist who returns to Altesa, the Italian coastal town of his childhood, to deal with his parents' estate. Among the olive groves and Mediterranean surf he discovers that there are still ghosts to be laid to rest.

Burt uses his favourite tool, the flashback, to tease out the key stages of a slow-burning tragedy. "The pieces were all there," Alex realises, "but what I thought was comprehension was in fact something entirely different."

The story tracks back to an eight-year old Alex and his new friends Jamie and Anna as they play away their summer tracking lizards, eating ice-cream and skinny-dipping. The two boys become soul mates while ebony-haired Anna remains a figure of adoration, her 10-year-old frame belying the glacial maturity that sees and understands the adult world in a way the other two cannot.

So far, so Rosamund Pilcher. However, Burt has darker intentions in creating such an idyll. The trio's favourite hideaway is a remote, disused chapel. As it has a clock with no hands, they nickname the building "the dandelion clock" after the game of blowing away a dandelion's seeds to find "what o'clock it is". All is sweet and innocent until a wounded stranger turns up at their den and, through Anna's manipulation, they forgo safety for a walk on the wild side. Burt blindsides the reader; it's as if he has suddenly teleported The Railway Children to Fargo. He keeps the tension simmering in the Italian heat by attaching a sense of impending doom to the children's most innocuous actions. This is a tale for the post-James Bulger generation: no one in the late 1990s can be in doubt of the cruel possibilities available to an alienated child's mind.

Burt revels in Cimmerian environments: school cellars, quarries and here the vaults and towers of a rotting chapel. If these appear obvious symbols of the murkier recesses of the brain, they are at least well thought out. With a chilling insight into the mores and mannerisms of pre-teens he illustrates how the shadows can provide a safety net as well as danger.

Although it cannot be described as "ground-breaking", as the sleeve notes would have us believe (anyone who has read a Barbara Vine novel will recognise the themes of repressed homosexuality and terrorism among the middle classes) The Dandelion Clock is still an impressive return from a writer who is clearly more than just a pretty face.