Only future social historians will be able to make sense of the on-going fashion for teenage dystopian novels. Will these books turn out to be harbingers of some dreadful reality to come? Or do they cater for the type of adolescent self-dramatisation that arises when young readers muse about possible nightmare futures that few genuinely believe will happen, at least in their life-time? Whatever, Melvin Burgess, "the godfather of teen fiction", has now come up with his own version in The Hit, and pretty nasty it is too.
Adam, one of the thoroughly dislikeable young characters in this story, hates how his life in Manchester is going and duly swallows a Death Pill – an easily accessible drug which, in return for one ecstatic week, leads to instant oblivion. With nothing to lose, other teenagers who have taken it join in the nightly riots taking place in a future Britain which is in its 20th year of recession.
But Adam has fallen for Lizzie, a more upbeat 17-year-old with no intention of dying. She tries to make Adam's last week a good one, but complications ensue and the pair get caught between a terrifying criminal gang and a shadowy revolutionary group, the Zealots. Violence comes increasingly into play, sometimes in sickening detail.
Burgess's best novel, Junk, dealt unflinchingly with current urban realities linked to the drug scene. This one slips into paranoid fantasy. As always, he writes well, but without the lighter touches of old and with little feeling for his main characters. Occasional shafts of light, such as Adam's joyous induction into sex, are soon extinguished by so much time spent in the company of murderous psychopaths. Increasingly, the tension resides in whether Adam and Lizzie can escape once again from their various abductors. What exactly they are escaping to and whether it will be significantly better than anything that went before is not spelled out, bar a few brave phrases in the last pages.
In an afterword, Burgess writes that the main idea for this story was put to him by Barry Cunningham, his charismatic publisher. It makes admittedly for compelling reading, but perhaps next time he could return to the personal resources that have stood him so well in the past.
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