My family and other agonies

STEP BY WICKED STEP Anne Fine Hamish Hamilton £9.99

As Charlotte Bront so wisely wrote in Jane Eyre, "Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feelings; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words." She knew too that the young often feel guilty and ashamed about the experience of being deeply unhappy.

Today, the brilliant children's novelist Anne Fine maintains this tradition of informing the rest of us what the young feel. In Step by Wicked Step, she writes about the tragi-comic world of step-families perceived from a child's eye view. Children will quickly recognise the situations she describes from their own lives or from those of their friends. Adult readers will surely also enjoy this riveting book and pick up some uncomfortable truths on the way.

The story opens when five children camping out in an old house on a school trip discover an old diary. It describes the bitter story of a Victorian adolescent forced out of his home by a tyrannical stepfather. After one of their number has finished reading it aloud each child then tells his or her own tale. They all come from split families: a tick in the school register indicating this fact was misinterpreted by another teacher as an instruction that they should occupy the same room.

None of them describes a wicked step-parent. Yet the intensity of their grief at the disintegration of a family sometimes rivals descriptions of mourning the dead. Fury at any invasion of personal territory is also strong, particularly when this involves having to share a room with a new half-sibling. And of course there is that initial, remorseless jealousy.

Even so, new step-parents are ultimately pitied rather than hated in these tales. Sometimes, the harder they are seen to try, the worse is their reception from children unable to stop behaving badly even when they know they are in the wrong. But the author suggests this period does not necessarily have to last. In two cases, the shared misery of step- parent and step-child finally brings them together. Only once does a child admit here that she will never get to like her new stepfather - she eventually finds a new home with her original father.

Sadder is the boy whose much-loved stepfather disappeared from his life when his mother took him away. Years later, he still remembers the games they played together and cherishes a few of his step-father's personal possessions. His long-term ambition is to seek him out once again. Another boy forms an alliance with his young stepmother against selfish old dad. Every sort of domestic variation is made to seem possible in these stories. The only constant refrain, as one 13-year-old makes clear, is that "Somebody has to make the effort."

Anne Fine's previous delightful story Goggle Eyes, about a new man in the house, was later televised in adult prime time. Step By Wicked Step would also make excellent viewing: serious without being pompous and always good-humoured. This author can make you laugh and cry and is too much of a treasure to be reserved for children alone.

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