A Week in Books: Menacing mood-music finds its way into fiction

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In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore squeezes grim hilarity from the security devices now sold to US consumers panicked by the "war on terror".

In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore squeezes grim hilarity from the security devices now sold to US consumers panicked by the "war on terror". There's the steel "safe room" that entombs its paranoid purchasers in their own homes; and the natty little harness that helps with abseiling down a burning skyscraper. Meanwhile, on this side of the special relationship, 2,000 rescue-service staff stage a mock chemical attack in Birmingham. And a government minister (Hazel Blears) advises us all to stock up on canned food.

We've been here before, of course: the bomb-shadowed trepidation that disfigured our dreams during the first Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, and again during its scary 1980s Reagan-Thatcher remake. This edge-of-destruction emotional weather also left its mark on the minds of novelists and screenwriters. Fictional survivors of nuclear catastrophe roamed through the bleak landscapes of apocalypse. Often, these tales from the aftermath involved youngsters left to their own devices, even if (as in Russell Hoban's 1980 masterpiece Riddley Walker) the work moved far beyond "children's literature".

Now, the menacing mood-music played by control-hungry states in the wake of September 11 is finding its way into fiction once more. In the "crossover" market, one early landmark comes in the form of Meg Rosoff's debut novel, How I Live Now (Penguin, £10.99). This book has looked in danger of drowning in its own hype long before release. Don't let that deter you: it turns out be both gripping and powerful in itself, and a timely renewal of the genre of survivors' memoirs. All the same, I suspect that the sassy Manhattan-bred narrator, Daisy, would have a pretty prompt reply to the sort of PR drool that tells us: "I love this book so much that I don't know how to write about it." It might sound a bit like: " Eeee-eww."

Aged 15, bratty, anorexic (and motherless) Daisy comes from the Upper West Side to spend a summer with her four English cousins. The laid-back quartet lounge around parent-free, with oodles of style, if not much cash, in a rambling Cotswold-stone farmhouse. As Daisy falls for the underage-driving, underage-smoking (and underage-everything-else) Edmond, a war breaks out off stage. It combines al-Qa'ida-era horrors with more traditional, Second World War-style occupation, deprivation and resistance.

We follow, filtered through Daisy's smartass, sweet-and-sour monologue, the rapid bloom and bust of her honeysuckle-scented idyll. Our MTV girl frolics in an E Nisbet world - and quite entrancing the encounter proves. Then war splits the cousins up; unravels all amenities; plunges rural English society back into a savage hand-to-mouth existence that recalls Bosnia - or Iraq? It also forces Daisy into a crash-course in maturity, as she and the fey nine-year-old Piper embark on an archetypal - and finely-written - perilous journey home. Behind Daisy's too-cool-for-school voice (a lot less marked in later sections), there's much canny welding of favourite fictional modes. We seldom spot the joins as a screwy-but-sharp teenager's soliloquy meets a first-love romance meets an aftermath-of-calamity novel meets a kids-run-wild romp meets a homecoming quest...

Barring some miraculous outbreak of peace and justice between the West and the Rest, young readers will be seeing and reading other stories of "staying alive in a country deformed and misshapen by war". Will these needlessly deepen a climate of fear? Not if they succeed - as Meg Rosoff's does - in sharpening empathy for the victims as they adjust to losing everything and everyone that matters. And how long does that take? Smart Daisy knows: "no time at all".

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