Slam, By Nick Hornby<br/>Wilderness, By Roddy Doyle

Tales of hope from the wilderness years
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The Independent Culture

Writing fiction for the teen-age market has become extremely hard. Instead of simply reaching back into their own experience, novelists working on a contemporary story must learn about a culture whose technology, tastes and language has changed at times beyond recognition. So when two established adult authors decide to take this route, admiration at their courage is coupled with fear that a lack of familiarity as well as practice may soon start to show.

Nick Hornby's Slam does indeed get off to a slow start, with 15-year-old skateboard-obsessed Sam's gaucheness and adolescent egotism accurately captured to the point of tedium as he recounts his story three years after the event. But things much improve when he describes what happens after he accidentally impregnates the girlfriend he had just decided to discard. A new urgency enters the writing, with Sam – a decent, well-supported adolescent with reasonable ambitions – having to consider his next step. His adolescent ex Alicia decides to keep the baby, as fictional teenage would-be mums almost invariably do. Only Jean Ure, Rosa Guy and a very few other novelists for this age group have argued the case for abortion in their stories, seeing the whole business through to termination.

Some not entirely convincing mystical mini-journeys into his own future show Sam what would be in store for a new dad living with disapproving in-laws and a stroppy baby while still going to school. It is not a pretty sight, but neither is the prospect of lighting out, leaving the still loving Alicia bitter and betrayed. Constantly arguing with himself, Sam battles on to his own solution, where he both wins and loses.

By this time, involved readers must have begun to think through the implications of this fine novel for themselves, almost certainly coming away with a new respect for the morning-after pill. If the Government decided to give away free copies as part of its sex education drive, well and good, given that our adolescent unwanted pregnancy level is the highest in Europe. But this is no cautionary tale. Hornby gets his point across with the subtlety and skill of a born novelist who always deserves to be read.

Roddy Doyle has written for younger readers before but not for teenagers. His Wilderness seems aimed at two audiences. The adventures of 11-year-old Johnny and his one-year younger brother Tom are breezy and bright until an Arctic trip involving sledges drawn by husky dogs goes wrong. Lost in the snow with their mother, who has a broken leg, they are on the point of death until rescue arrives. Experiencing an adventure in the company of parents makes for a refreshing change. Readers will surely feel able to forgive some unlikely turns in the plot faced by writing that is such fun to consume, drawing on the author's own recent trip to North Finland in the company of his family.

Back at home things are different. Their half-sister Gráinne, aged 16 and expert in making others share her own misery, is awaiting a visit from her idealised mother, now living in America, who had abandoned her when she was four and never kept in touch since. Readers lurch from the challenges of physical adventure to the emotional upheavals of domestic drama at its most poignant. The first meeting with mother is a predictable failure, but Gráinne just manages to control her rage during further encounters.

By the end of this engaging novel, very much of two parts, the family is more or less reconciled. Exuberant, affectionate and expert in achieving his effects in a minimum of words, Doyle shows here that he can write well for all audiences, artfully hiding his skills behind apparently effortless prose.

Nicholas Tucker is co-author of the 'Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'

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