Book review: Campfire tales of cuckoos in the nest

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The Independent Online
step by wicked step Anne Fine Hamish Hamilton, £9.99

As Charlotte Bronte so wisely wrote in Jane Eyre: "Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feeling; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words." She knew, too, that the young often feel guilty and ashamed about the experience of being deeply unhappy. Dickens also made the existence of children's misery manifest in his fiction. The young David Copperfield is unfailingly articulate about his despair; far more than his auth or was as a child about his own suffering at the hated blacking factory.

Today the brilliant children's novelist Anne Fine maintains this tradition of periodically informing the rest of us what the young feel. In this book, the topic is their attitudes towards reconstituted families. In Step by Wicked Step (think about it) she writes about this frequently tragi-comic world perceived from a child's-eye view. Children will quickly recognise the situations she describes from their own lives or from those of their friends. Adult readers will surely also enjoy this funny but riveting book, regardless of any uncomfortable truths possibly picked up on the way.

The story opens when five children camping out in an old house on a school trip discover a diary. It describes the bitter story of a Victorian adolescent forced out of his home by a tyrannical stepfather. After one of their number has finished reading italoud each child then tells its own tale. They all come from split families, and a tick in the school register indicating this fact was misinterpreted by another teacher as an instruction that they should occupy the same room.

None of them describes a wicked step-parent. Yet the intensity of their grief at the disintegration of a once-intact family sometimes rivals descriptions of mourning the dead. Fury at any invasion of personal territory is also strong, particularly when this involves having to share a room with a new half-sibling. And, of course, there is that initial, remorseless jealousy directed at the not-so-young cuckoo in the nest now daring to stand between the child and a loved parent.

Even so, new step-parents are ultimately pitied rather than hated in these tales. Sometimes, the harder they are seen to try, the worse is their reception from children unable to stop behaving badly even when they know they are in the wrong. But the author suggests this period does not necessarily have to last. In two cases the shared misery of step-parent and stepchild at the grim situation in which they find themselves finally brings them together. Only once does a child admit here that she will never get to like her new stepfather - "I can't bear his face, or his voice, or his beard or anything about him. I can't stand him when he's trying to be nice, and I can't stand him when he's cross with me. I especially can't stand him telling me what to do."

She eventually finds a new home with her original father.

Sadder is the boy whose much-loved stepfather disappeared from his life when his mother took him away in a joint flit. Years later he still remembers the games they played together, and cherishes a few of his stepfather's personal possessions. His long-term ambition is to seek him out again. Another boy forms an alliance with his young stepmother against selfish old dad. Every sort of domestic variation is made to seem possible in these stories. The only constant refrain, as one 13-year-old makes clear, is that "somebody has to make the effort". So long as the adults involved are willing to try, then once the initial emotional hurly-burly has peaked, children are advised to start trying, too.

Anne Fine's previous delightful story Goggle Eyes, about a new man in the house, was televised in adult prime time. Step By Wicked Step would also make excellent viewing: serious without being pompous and always good-humoured. The issues it brings into the open are well worth a public airing for all families, reconstituted or otherwise. This author can make you laugh and cry and is too much of a treasure to be reserved for children alone.