The Republic of Trees by Sam Taylor

How kids lose their heads
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The Independent Culture

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In southern France, near the Pyrenees, four teenagers "escape" to live in the forest, in a state of primeval innocence and of revolution against a world fouled by their parents' society. The adult-free group of children is tricky fictional territory, with an awesome ancestry, and Sam Taylor is brave to venture there in this first novel.

Two of his group, Alex and Isobel, are the offspring of an English couple living in a renovated château with swimming-pool - the sort of folk familiar from newspaper features and TV programmes. Michael and Louis are half-English, orphans raised by a grudging French aunt. Michael, slightly younger than the others, tells the story in a rather baffling voice that is certainly not that of someone in early teenage years and will in due course become that of the unreliable narrator.

They melt into the woodland, and set up camp in a tumbledown house. They scavenge for berries, they shoot birds and deer, bathe in a hidden river. So far, so idyllic. Isobel sets about the sexual initiation of Michael, who falls in love with her. Louis is obsessed with the French Revolution, and lectures the others on Rousseau and The Social Contract. They start to play a game in which episodes from the Revolution are re-enacted; they kill a boar and use its blood to add authenticity to these scenes.

Mysteriously, another girl appears: Joy, as dumpy and unattractive as Isobel is lithe and charming. Initially, she seems to be Isobel's acolyte; gradually, she emerges as a sinister manipulator. The Revolution game is formalised into the group's own Republic, with draconian laws and penalties for "traitors".

They raid farms and houses in search of equipment that they need, and desecrate official papers in the local mairie. Helicopters are now heard above the forest, the threat to property evidently a more serious matter than the disappearance of four adolescents. It has to be said that the hard-headed reader has been wondering for a while why the forest has not been invaded long since by a major search operation.

Michael's narrating voice now begins to swerve into passages of confusion and semi-mysticism. Always a daydreamer, he is now the victim of rampant night dreams - rather too many - and is drawn into Joy's lurid application of the Republic's requirements.

The most practical of these has been the construction of a guillotine, which proves to work nicely on a duck, at the end of an alcohol-fuelled evening orgy. His rapturous sessions with Isobel become an uncomfortable memory, as his voice slides further into what seems a semi-drugged account of what is happening, and the story hurtles towards a Grand Guignol conclusion.

The most telling scene of all in Lord of the Flies is the confrontation between the boys and the naval officer: anarchy faced down by order, and the reader's reminder of a world that has tried to contain evil. It's an unfair comparison, perhaps (another first novel, though), but what seems to be lacking here is the counterbalance of adult activity, the apposition of adolescent fantasy and a real world.

How did they get away with it for so long? Where were those search parties? The savage ending could seem implausible, but l read it on the day that the papers were reporting the conviction of a 16-year-old obsessed with satanism, who stripped, tied up and stabbed his girlfriend - a grim assurance that the warped teenage mind is not just a fictional construct. The Republic of Trees does not quite come off, but it is a bold debut and one wants to see what Taylor does next.

Penelope Lively's latest novel is 'The Photograph' (Penguin)

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