RUDE AWAKENING

VANESSA WALTERS is 18, black and British, and she doesn't hang about. She's now in her first year studying law at University College London, but she wrote her debut novel, Rude Girls (Pan pounds 4.99), in her summer holidays from school; her headmistress recommended her to get an agent, and this led to a substantial advance from Macmillan while she was still a schoolgirl. The novel moves at speed, too. By the end of Chapter One we have met a gang of Yardies, been to a raucous all-day music festival, witnessed a shooting and been involved in a car-chase through the streets of Hackney. Shree, Paula and Janice, our three fun-loving, bare-as-you- dare heroines have appeared, complete with descriptions of their hairstyles (laborious) and body types (petite, stocky, tall and thin respectively).

The Yardies drive up in their black Mercedes "emitting slack music", a very bad sign. For all the attention given to Paula's baby, Shree's drug-dealer dad and Janice's middle-class family, the action centres around the trio's attempts to find true love with a boy who is "kriss" rather than "a dog". Will Shree manage to shake off the evil gangster Nero? Will Paula get rid of Michael, her no-good babyfather, and will Janice, in the funniest sub-plot of all, ever learn that laid-back ragga dee-jay Elroy loves her more than Rolex-wearing "coconut" Maurice. Janice gets a job - her friends see this as a definite, though harmless, eccentricity, funded as they are by the proceeds of dealing or by the State - and falls in with black accountant Maurice. He disapproves of her batty-riders, lurex and hair decorations. In one hilarious scene, Shree and Paula strip Janice of her dowdy new gear, and take her out in a pink, gold, silver and blue "glittering sequinned top and leggings suit ... [with] diamond dollar signs and 'Dem nuh wicked like me' in gold beads across the chest".

The author does not seem entirely at home with the Yardies ("Until recently, Terror had been enjoying the good life. A craving for luxuries had led him into a life of babymothers, constant raving and lavish spending. But this decadent lifestyle had loosened his wits") and her grip on Maurice's upmarket milieu is equally shaky. A spokeswoman for the publishers said: "The book is not imaginative; she's writing about her own experiences and her community." Well, there's a little bit more to it than that. Walters turns out to be the product of a swanky private girls' school, Queen's College in Harley Street, W1. Jim Hutchinson, Deputy Head of Queen's College, is bubbling over with enthusiasm for his former pupil. "She came in via the assisted place scheme - all her fees were paid for her. Initially she was quiet and shy, but we soon uncovered a multi-talented personality: at 14 she could act, dance, sing and write, and there's an academic side to her too: she studied Greek at 'A' Level and she wants to be a lawyer." Hutchinson is head of computer studies and used to tell Walters off for printing out huge reams of prose: "It isn't a photocopier!" Walters used to try out selections from the book on her friends: "It existed almost in serial form: you'd see gangs of girls laughing hysterically," says Hutchinson.

Queen's College itself is a notable establishment; soon to celebrate its 150th anniversary, it was a pioneer of girls' education. "We like to point out that 'Miss Beale and Miss Buss / Were educated by us'," says Hutchinson. Another ex-pupil is Emma Freud: "she was always going off to do exciting things, acting and so forth, but just like Vanessa, completely unspoiled by all the attention." They are both, he says proudly, the type of independent-minded young women that "we churn out here".

Ms Walters may have a bit to learn about technique, but her characters are racy, believable and sharply defined, her style is amusing (perhaps more so than she intends) and the yap-yap of her three feisty heroines fits comfortably into the current trend for fiction led by authentic, spicy dialogue. For anyone who isn't black, teenage and London-bred, it's a wonderfully enjoyable piece of earwigging.

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