The Fire-Eaters by David Almond

Growing pains in a world on the brink
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David Almond is in many ways the natural successor to Alan Garner as a writer of quality for teenagers and beyond. Equally embedded in one particular area of Britain, in his case the North-east, he also has an acute ear for dialogue. Far more is said than first appears. He too reaches into the past to explain the present, and looks upon adolescence as a time of potential joy and discovery, whatever its temporary strains.

But while Garner was a critical rather than a popular success, Almond's best-selling Skellig has now been adapted for the stage and opens in London at the Young Vic this autumn, directed by Trevor Nunn. Whether The Fire-Eaters will do equally well remains to be seen. Set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, it features Bobby Burns, a boy growing up in a seaside community near Newcastle.

Winning a place at the local Catholic grammar school after passing the 11-plus, Bobby has to cope with the resentment of his unselected friends. Once there, he experiences the sanctimonious brutality of a "faith school" at its worst. There is also an ill father, first love with Ailsa, who helps her brothers gather coal from the sea, and the lurking presence of McNulty, an ex-soldier turned professional fire-eater and visionary.

All these characters are well described, and the opening funfair scene recalls Almond's brilliant sketches about childhood, Counting Stars. Yet something goes wrong, at first momentarily but later with gathering speed. While Garner pared his stories down to the last syllable, Almond is too prolix, particularly over the matter of love. Mothers, fathers, children and friends find it so easy to utter the "l" word to each other, as if British reserve never existed 41 years ago.

The other problem is war. The references to Kennedy, Khruschev and approaching doom never ring true. For a private writer like Almond, this incursion into politics lacks the quality of belief that makes his understated stories seem so real. The link between McNulty's disastrous time in Burma and his subsequent madness is fair enough, but it never carries conviction as a comment on Cuba. Bringing current events into novels is always tricky, particularly for teenage readers hyper-sensitive to any attempts to educate them out of school hours.

Yet if this story does not quite work, there are still moments as good as anything else Almond has done, such as the time when Bobby and his new friend Daniel paper their school with photos of a particularly sadistic teacher handing out a savage caning. Otherwise, as his characters themselves keep saying, it is more a matter of "Howay!" - and wait for the next novel.