Jonathan Cape £12.99 (345pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Nicholas Dane, By Melvin Burgess
Friday 17 July 2009
This fine novel exposes the abusive regimes that operated in the worst British care homes during the 1980s. Given that there is now pressure to reduce the emphasis on fostering children at risk or abandoned in favour of more institutional solutions, Nicholas Dane is nothing if not timely. Set in Manchester and loosely based on Oliver Twist, it describes how 14-year-old Nicholas is taken into care after his single mother, a secret junkie, dies of an overdose while he is at school.
But unlike Dickens's mild-mannered Oliver, who never loses either his basic trust or his perfect diction, this boy from the start is something of a handful. He is placed in a notorious assessment centre that neither assesses nor allows its inmates out to home or school. Savagely punished by staff and prefects , he finds some respite with Tony Creal, the apparently kindly deputy head who then turns out to be expert in grooming boys for his sexual needs.
Hauled back from a failed attempt at escape, Nicholas denounces Creal. Instead of receiving justice he is locked away and suffers something very like torture. But he is a born survivor; otherwise his story would be too dreadful to contemplate. Not everyone is so lucky; his best friend, on the verge of disclosing the existence of the paedophile ring, disappears, never to be seen again.
Although Nicholas is much the stronger character, his mental scars continue to haunt him even after he has seen the downfall of his former oppressors. These last events, where he finally leaves the dreaded Home, gets an education and finds hard-won security in marriage and children, are only briefly sketched. The centre of this story remains his appalling time in state institutional care.
Melvin Burgess is the ideal author to recount these travails. Author of many other cross-over novels, from his superb Junk to the challengingly explicit Doing It, he is always worth reading at any - teenage or adult - level. After interviewing people who had gone through the care system, he writes here with authority as well as passion. The world he creates contains no moral absolutes. His villains are lonely and weak, never allowing readers the easy course of simply writing them off as born evil, and his better characters still do their best, if only for some of the time.
Others fit into neither category. Fagin, for example, re-emerges in the ambiguous Shiner, an amiable, middle-ageddope-smoking West Indian. Like his original, he too provides Nicholas and friends with valuable food and shelter, albeit in return for stolen goods. Nor is there any hint of any sexual abuse – a charge sometimes made against Fagin, with nothing in Dickens's text to bear this out. Jones, the young drug-crazed re-incarnation of Bill Sykes, is indeed truly horrible - but also a former abused child. Killing Stella, the girlfriend who sticks by him despite his cruelty towards her, leads to his worst agony of mind yet, with suicide the only tolerable option left for him.
This is an extremely violent novel, but as more than 3,000 "restraint techniques" were recorded as having been used on children aged between 12 and 17 in British detention centres only last year, it is no bad thing to be reminded of the realities of visiting physical violence on the young. There are also some graphic descriptions of sexual abuse, painful but necessarily spelled out in order to get over their true horror. Mr Brownlow, the kindly gentleman who makes Oliver Twist's life so much easier, has no place in this scenario. But those who do manage to help Nicholas, however ineffectively, still show evidence of wanting to do the right thing. Their presence, when it most matters, is enough to turn this novel into one of final hope rather than despair.
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