<preform>Summer of the Cicada</b></i> Will Napier</preform>

When adolescence is a time of cruelty
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The Independent Culture

Teenage boys are primeval. When physical strength develops faster than ethical capacity, the results are disastrous. Torturing animals is one juvenile perennial, persecuting more vulnerable teens another. Weaker adolescents are not ennobled by their suffering because, in turn, they abuse others. Unshakeable faith in this Hobbesian status quo gives perverse reassurance to everyone involved. It is a remarkably resilient world-view that can extend beyond streets and recreation areas to encompass domestic violence.

Teenage boys are primeval. When physical strength develops faster than ethical capacity, the results are disastrous. Torturing animals is one juvenile perennial, persecuting more vulnerable teens another. Weaker adolescents are not ennobled by their suffering because, in turn, they abuse others. Unshakeable faith in this Hobbesian status quo gives perverse reassurance to everyone involved. It is a remarkably resilient world-view that can extend beyond streets and recreation areas to encompass domestic violence.

Will Napier's novel opens with a bravura display of pugilism as Joseph Pullman's dad methodically beats him. Joe's mother drives him to casualty, coaching him in a cover story: he has been attacked by a gang of other boys. Joe is always being attacked in this way, it seems. He knows that he must make more effort to escape from his imaginary pursuers. "I hadn't tried hard enough," he reflects wryly.

The fiction that keeps police and social workers away becomes real in school. A Billy No-mates covered in bruises becomes a punch-bag for every playground contender. Teachers will not take action. Indeed, Joe is seen as an obstacle to the smooth running of the school. "I'm tired of cleaning cuts and icing bruises for people like you," sniffs the nurse.

Between fights, Joe hooks up with Dean, another reject. Despite his enviably normal background, Dean has a shell as thick as a polar ice-cap, incorrigibly laconic except when prying into Joe's home life. Understandably, Joe's least favourite topics are his father's psychopathic rages and his mother's descent into insanity via prolonged screaming fits.

In other respects, Joe is an Everyboy, and Napier's painstaking accretions of detail lure us back into adolescence. In a purposeful and directed wasting of time, Joe and Dean hang out in the woods. Soon their burgeoning awareness of mortality triggers deadly experimentation. They kill animals and insects - the cicadas that swarm their small Massachusetts town every 17 years are prime targets. Unfortunately, this standard sadism proves insufficient. Joe's clear perspective on his own brutalisation, and his terror of his father, do not guarantee his intervention to save anyone else.

There is a certain amount of dark relief here. Joe is engagingly cynical and his fatalism is often very funny. But over time the story's bleak horror begins to predominate and the atmosphere of dread can be oppressive. Other problems are a crop of non sequiturs and a clumsy early plot hook that telegraphs Dean's eventual demise.

Nonetheless, Napier triumphs on two counts. His portrait of Joe is supremely well imagined and he uses the anger and desolation of Joe and his father to drive the novel along with irresistible force. Frequently brilliant and consistently unsettling, Summer of the Cicada will remain with you for quite a while.

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