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Books: Towel girls and surfer boys

THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES by Joy Nicholson Viking pounds 9.99

At first glance, the idea of a Californian surfer novel is about as enticing as that of a rock band fronted by Iris Murdoch. Joy Nicholson's first novel, however, set amongst surfing teenagers in the exclusive Californian beach resort of Palos Verdes, is infinitely more interesting and complex than it has any right to be.

Telling the story of 14-year-old Medina Mason's struggle to break into an all-male clique of surfers, while dealing with her parents' vicious divorce and an effortlessly popular elder brother, The Tribes of Palos Verdes sounds like a teen-novel by numbers. But it isn't. From the first paragraph, the writing has an authority and profundity that transcends the conventions of adolescent literature.

Although it is being presented as a girl-versus-boys surfer-war, the tribes of the title are not, as we are at first led to believe, the adolescent cliques that populate the local beach: "The towel girls, the Jews, the Chinese girls, the softball players ... They wear the same lipstick colours and have similar bathing suits. Their parents have roughly the same amount of money." Rather, the real tribalism is that which dominates the interior life of a family.

The novel is, in essence, a meticulous and agonisingly accurate portrayal of how a divorcing couple manipulate their children's loyalties. Using affection, money, threats and self-pity, the squabbling parents turn the emotional lives of Medina and her brother into a battlefield. The character of the mother, in particular, is a breathtaking portrayal of bitterness - a bitterness which transforms into pure evil as its force is brought to bear on her children.

As the unnamed mother suffocates Medina's twin, Jim, with overbearing love, Medina is pushed away: cast out for alleged loyalty to the now absent father. A new battle ensues, with Medina fighting her mother for Jim's affection.

The real stroke of brilliance in the book is in Nicholson's insight into adolescent psychology. She resists the cliches about moody histrionics, and perfectly captures the emotional repression that dominates the interior life of unhappy teenagers.

Nicholson is magnificently strict in her use of the narrative voice, causing much of the story to be told by omission. The surfing, which is energetically described, serves a clear psychological function - it is Medina's cover for the story she is really telling. Like a genuine adolescent Medina will only talk to us to describe an emotionally neutral topic: surfing. The real story, about her misery, isolation and fear, is only present between the lines.

It is precisely her failure to describe how she really feels about her parents that communicates her suffering. Equally, we only discover that she is a social outcast through what people say and do to her (she is bullied at school). She never actually tells us directly that she is friendless and lonely.

The Tribes of Palos Verdes is a pained and angry novel, hiding behind a happy tale of riding the waves in Californian sunshine. Ever since The Catcher in the Rye, streams of novelists have tried to update the adolescent experience for successive generations. Few have succeeded. The most common stumbling block is that an adult authorial voice peeps out from behind the adolescent narration.

For this sub-genre to work, the novel has to be shaped and structured without feeling so. Part of the fascination with J D Salinger is that he is so brilliantly absent from his own novel. Through the course of The Tribes of Palos Verdes, we come to feel that we know everything about Medina Mason, but nothing about Joy Nicholson.Taking this as the ultimate measure of success in the literature of adolescence, few writers have come as close as Nicholson to Salinger-esque perfection.