CHILDREN'S BOOKS / How to ape an ancestor: Nicholas Tucker on teenage fiction
Saturday 22 August 1992
It tells the parallel stories of two girls separated by four million years. Li, a clever adolescent from a tribe of sea-apes living in Africa, invents new ways of fishing in co-operation with the local dolphins and finally sees off her murderous rival for leadership of the group. Vinny, away on safari with her archaeologist father, gradually helps reconstruct the daily existence of her remote ancestor. Both girls have to cope with the bitter social division going on around them while making important discoveries in their own right.
Having already written convincingly about Byzantine history, the Boxer Rebellion and a group of Sikhs living in a futuristic Britain, the author is equally at home in the world of prehistory. His description of how early hominids lived, thought and communicated is as good as anything found in William Golding's The Inheritors. He relies heavily on the controversial theories of Elaine Morgan over the existence of aquatic apes, about which Vinny teases her stuffily orthodox father. Winner of numerous prizes in the past, Dickinson is a good bet for yet more awards this year.
Robert Westall is another author almost incapable of writing a dull sentence. Fearful lovers and other stories (Macmillan pounds 8.99) consists of five spooky tales, three of them knock-outs. A threatened visit from the Devil to a rural Register Office, a blind man's ability to reconstruct a crime, an antique camera whose undeveloped photographs lead to a murder hunt: all these make for arresting stories. Despite their unlikelihood, they become, through accurate detail and dialogue, wholly credible. Only in the last two does Westall's concentration slip, resulting in stereotyped characters and over-involved plots.
Caitlin Moran was 15 years old when she wrote The Chronicles of Narmo (Doubleday pounds 7.99). Like the heroine of her book, she lives in Wolverhampton with six brothers and sisters, and her episodic account of a chaotic family is frequently very funny. The father, Bill, is a particular butt of bons mots: 'His hair is on the wispy side, and his temper on Permanent Fray.' The only thing this brilliant young author has in common with previous prodigies like Daisy Ashford is her over-use of certain adjectives and her liking for 'rather', as in a 'rather sad-looking coconut' or a 'rather militant bottle of French mayonnaise', both in the same paragraph. Self-congratulatory stories featuring awful but loveable sprawling families can easily try the nerves. Yet taken in small doses, Caitlin Moran offers excellent entertainment.
Youthful fun and games make way for bleak despair when one turns to William Bedford's Nightworld (Bodley Head pounds 8.99). Children's literature should always offer a span of different emotions and attitudes, but this story of a coastal bird sanctuary threatened by pollution, the prospect of nuclear dumping and a murderous old gypsy (all at the same time) goes well over the top.
Written in the kind of shorthand where individual sentences pile up on top of each other with no encompassing paragraph in sight, the book builds up an atmosphere of a fragmented environment inhabited by disconnected humans. Yet the characterisation is often exaggerated, full of tired old polytechnic lecturers with balding heads and a tendency to call everyone else 'neo-fascists', wheeled in as representatives of the Anti-Pollution protest group. There are some memorable descriptions of bird-life surviving against the odds, but Nightworld is too unrelievedly gloomy for its own good.
Cutting Loose (Julia MacRae pounds 8.99) is the sequel to Carole Lloyd's promising first novel, The Charlie Barber Treatment. Those who have already encountered the intense, likeable heroine of the title will certainly want to know what happens to her next. Others, new to the scene, may find the degree of adolescent self-absorption excessive. A character just has to say something as unremarkable as 'Tomorrow is a brand new day' to send Charlie into paragraphs of anxious cogitation.
Cleverly constructed, so that the passage of one traumatic week is broken into Before and After sequences, the actual events of this story are still fairly mundane. New haircuts, tedious Christmas shopping and trouble with Gran falling downstairs are not in themselves enough to carry readers along.
In her sensitively written Simple Simon (Bodley Head pounds 8.99), Yvonne Coppard tells the story of a normally indecisive boy, who runs away with his two younger sisters to avoid being taken into care while their mother is in hospital. Although nothing quite works out, all is ultimately for the best, with a final near-reconciliation with an absent Dad that should have everyone reaching for their handkerchiefs.
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