Literary images of childhood have often been contradictory. Sentimental portraits can co-exist – as in Dickens – with malevolent junior characters. These two new novels from America maintain this dichotomy; reading them one after the other provides a topsy-turvy experience.
Although Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight is his first adult novel, he is already well known for his black, high-voltage satires for children as "Lemony Snicket". But there is no easy escape into comic exaggeration in this novel, which describes how a group of affluent, gifted US 18-year-olds drift into debauchery and murder during their last term at high school. It is written in the form of a journal kept by the most obviously disturbed of their number. Her text is peppered by cod study-questions and vocabulary lists which could have come straight out of the Literacy Hour, until they finish as insane parody. In between are some authentically bitchy conversations laced by quotations from the books the students are studying with their teachers, who nearly all come over as pathetic inadequates.
But the greatest scorn is reserved neither for them nor for the parents, who are practically invisible, but for counsellors, psychologists and other youth experts called in to explain this out-of-control group. At a last, epically drunken party – so well described it is difficult not to share the symptoms – a handsome, two-timing new entry into the group is brutally killed. Attempts to keep all this quiet flounder, particularly after an ingenious last-minute twist that will send readers scurrying back to the beginning to check how they have been duped.
At one moment the main character Flan writes that "between teen movies and sex-ed textbooks we're so ready for our rebellious phase we can't help but feel it's safe, contained". By the end, she knows that the wit that once seemed to justify everything the group said and did is no defence against the consequences of murder – and then stuffing the dead body into the boot of a car.
Well-written, convincing, hilarious at one moment and stomach-turning the next, this is a wonderfully subversive story for any reader still buying into the high-school version of the American dream. Characters reputed to be extremely intelligent can pose a problem when authors are required to come up with appropriately brilliant dialogue. But Handler reproduces a flow of smart-arse repartee drawn from the very top end of the teenage conversational market. There is much to enjoy in his clever and substantial novel, which is by way of a comic nightmare from which all its main characters fail to wake up.
Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is a complete contrast, resurrecting the idea of childhood innocence blighted by adult evil. But although her 14-year-old heroine Susie is killed at the end of the first chapter by a serial murderer, she lives on in Heaven – pictured as a place of whims rather than hymns, whose inhabitants still take a keen interest in what is going on below.
While Susie cannot re-assemble herself on earth, she can and does influence those most affected by her death. As her father sinks into misery and her mother leaves home, Susie keeps up the search for her killer and does her best to repair some of the damage he has done, not just to her family but to the whole community.
Writing at any length about Heaven is usually difficult unless the intention is satire, as in Michael Frayn's masterpiece Sweet Dreams. For a while Sebold just about gets away with her vision of the celestial high school that Susie creates, along with assorted roommates and a motherly intake-counsellor. But the real tension always remains with what is happening elsewhere, and while the agony of Susie's family is genuine enough, the reconciliation that comes its way is never convincing. By this time Susie discovers a way of briefly re-entering the world through another teenager's body; yet another wish-fulfilment fantasy out of keeping with the initially detached tone. With film rights sold, The Lovely Bones is also high in The New York Times bestseller list. But it is a flawed story, prone to the sort of inspirational gush too often associated with descriptions of life after death. While Sebold may be giving her readers what most want to believe, there is no doubt that Handler's bleak story remains more gripping – as well as much better written.
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