Boy A, by Jonathan Trigell <br/>Bad Influence, by William Sutcliffe

Rare look at contemporary childhood

Fears about potentially murderous children are nothing new. Harmful child spirits have always existed in folklore, coming back to haunt those who neglected or persecuted them on earth. Anxieties about the evil young today, fuelled by similar mixtures of adult resentment and guilt, are embodied not just in images of wicked fictional children but also in media images of notorious young killers.

Fears about potentially murderous children are nothing new. Harmful child spirits have always existed in folklore, coming back to haunt those who neglected or persecuted them on earth. Anxieties about the evil young today, fuelled by similar mixtures of adult resentment and guilt, are embodied not just in images of wicked fictional children but also in media images of notorious young killers.

A child from this category is the main character in Jonathan Trigell's fine and moving debut novel, Boy A. Broadly based on the James Bulger tragedy, it tells the story of Jack, now aged 24 and trying to start again under a new identity after years at juvenile institutions. When he buys a cut-throat razor with his first earnings, the future looks bleak.

This is no born villain. There are many references to the possible contributions made by his miserable childhood. Parents and local authority seem happy to ignore his repeated truanting, punctuated by pitiless bullying in school. Then there is his truly dangerous companion, Boy B, without whom Jack would have been far too gormless to have got into such terrible trouble.

Jack comes over as curiously innocent both as child and adult. How, then, did he help murder a 10-year-old schoolgirl? A game gone wrong or an instant of pure evil? Guilt by association or equal shares? Whatever readers' own conclusions, it's hard not to pity the adult Jack. Harrowing at times, this compulsively readable novel is more optimistic than it sounds. Jack so nearly makes it, discovering love and friendship for the first time. Boy B is never so lucky.

William Sutcliffe's Bad Influence is initially more cheerful. There are overtones of authors Richmal Crompton and Mark Haddon as the story's 10-year-old narrator, Ben, describes techniques, with footnotes and diagrams, for irritating older members of his family. But all humour disappears with the arrival of every parent's nightmare in the person of Carl, junior psychopath and extremely bad influence.

Desperate to keep in with best friend Olly, over whom Carl has cast his spell, Ben goes along with their dangerous games. He is just saved by his normally unsympathetic older brother from participating in a dreadful act that sees both other boys locked away and leaves Ben, like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, telling his story to a psychiatric social worker.

This novel focuses on feelings and thought processes that make children different from adults - in Ben's case, irrational fears of becoming a social outcast. While adults can generally recall such past delusions, children are often too close to be able to judge them as out-of-scale fantasies. Sutcliffe's story is entirely convincing on this score, and does very well on all other counts. To have two such accomplished novels about contemporary childhood at once is a rare treat.

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