Doing It, by Melvin Burgess

Angels with dirty minds
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The Independent Culture

Condemned by Anne Fine, the Children's Laureate, trumpeted by adverts on buses ("The book your parents don't want you to read"), Doing It had become controversial even before publication. It is easily the most sexually explicit novel written for teenage readers to date, and the language with which the main young characters speak, think or fantasise is very frank. Yet as anyone who has ever overheard and possibly moved away from a group of adolescents chatting loudly about sex on a train journey knows, there is nothing new about this type of talk. The novelty is to find it within a book, particularly one aimed at readers still at school.

The first chapter, where the main teenage characters Jon, Ben and Dino entertain each other by playing one lubricious fantasy against another, is the toughest, and a potential trip-wire for shocked adults. If the entire book were to continue in this style it would soon become unbearable. But for the rest of his story Melvin Burgess reins back on the libidinous fantasy. Having established that this is how a great many male adolescents often talk and think, he is content to observe the conventions of teenage literature, whereby characters do not on the whole speak in as monotonous a way about sex as they do in real life.

What else they do in these pages is to worry: about their sexual performance (or lack of it), about getting the right girl and avoiding the wrong one, and whether to break off a relationship that no longer seems to be working. There are girl characters, too, with their own sexual agendas, but the chief emphasis is on three presentable young males, all in the sixth form and intending to go to university.

They largely want to do the right thing, both sexually and otherwise, and when one is thought to have behaved badly towards a girl, the rest condemn them. When they are upset, in one case about their parents' failing marriage, they are still young enough to sob in front of their mates.

These are no teenage monsters. What they do have in common is a consuming interest in sex. When they manage to get some, they are sometimes in raptures, marvelling at the experience like a gourmet recalling a truly splendid meal. But there can be complications. Ben has an affair with a randy young teacher, which begins like an erotic fantasy and ends as an ugly form of abuse. Jon worries that his girlfriend is too fat, and a butt for cruel humour. Only one, the handsome Dino, actually enjoys something like a sex life before he runs into difficulties when his emotions and physical needs refuse to mesh.

Most teenage novels paint a dismally dystopian picture of a future crippled by political and environmental decay. This book holds out a more hopeful picture, at least in the short-term. It tells young people that sex can be beautiful as well as exciting. Those parts of the body most to do with this everyday miracle are named and celebrated. But Doing It also warns young readers that sex without feeling, or of some sense of responsibility, is poor stuff.

Books for younger readers have often been ambiguous about the development of sexuality, with classics like Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows suggesting that it is better to stay forever young or, at least, safely celibate. But describing those joys of sexuality only fully accessible to individuals content to grow away from childhood is also worth doing. Melvin Burgess does so in this clever novel, so much less shocking and threatening than any of the publicity might have led you to believe.

Nicholas Tucker is author of the 'Rough Guide to Children's Books'

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