How much do you trust the world around you?
Holiday fiction for young adults
Melvin Burgess: his new novel features problems with a drug called Death
In his introduction to Blank Pages (Fighting Words, €9.99), John Banville reflects on the books he read as a teenager and contrasts them with the 20 or so short stories by present-day teenagers that constitute this anthology, the latest to emanate from the Fighting Words creative-writing enterprise. He realises, he says, “how radically the world has changed and how much knowledge the young are required to bear in these hard times”.
For the “present-day teenagers” represented in the anthology, all of them students at St Mary’s Holy Faith Secondary School for Girls in Killester, north Dublin, the times may indeed come across in their fictions as “hard” and the burden of “knowledge” to be borne may indeed seem challenging and oppressive. But such, in general, are the energy of the writing, the engaging sense of imaginative youthful exuberance and the flashes of mischievous humour that even in the darkest of settings and situations life is being given, at the very least, a cautious embrace.
To embrace or reject? In several of his earlier novels Melvin Burgess has clinically dissected the complexities of choice, often with a shocking linguistic candour. Now, in The Hit (Chicken House, £7.99), he imagines a post-Cameron England (more specifically, a Manchester) in the throes of social and political revolt, a place where its disaffected youth have access to a drug called, significantly, Death. This will give its users a week of unparalleled hedonistic euphoria, but the price for making this particular choice is a high one, taking the form of a certain and inevitable death. It is a startling concept for a novel but one that Burgess addresses with his customary gritty directness. Many of its more thuggish villains are extremely unsavoury, much of the action is insistently violent and Adam and Lizzie, its principal teenage characters, are far from flawless. But rarely in young adult fiction have the apparent charms of instant gratification been set to such effect against the definite knowledge of ultimate annihilation.
How much do you trust the world around you? As a single sentence encapsulating the essence of much young adult fiction, this is a question to be applauded as the best possible introduction to Malorie Blackman’s Noble Conflict (Doubleday, £12.99), thereby justifying its being given such prominence on the novel’s back cover. Recently named as Britain’s new children’s laureate, Blackman has never shirked ambitious themes and here her focus is on a futuristic regime – not so futuristic, perhaps – where the clashing aspirations of state and citizen are dramatically exposed. At the centre of the drama is a young “Guardian” called Kaspar, increasingly drawn to questioning many of his assumptions about the societal “truths” he has imbibed. “All the fixed points in his life seemed to have disappeared,” he comes to realise. The personal and the political are convincingly brought together in a novel which, incidentally, will have an added appeal for readers who share Blackman’s fascination with evolving computer technology.
It would be true to say that Richard Kurti’s absorbing novel Monkey Wars (Walker, £7.99) also provides a satisfying blend of “the personal and the political”, once it is made clear that we are talking here not of human beings but of our closest relatives. In the Indian city now known as Kolkata, rival troops of langur and rhesus monkeys are engaged in a sequence of fierce power struggles, in the course of which the destinies of Mico, a young male langur, and Papina, a young female rhesus, are conjoined. Although we are given to understand that the conflict has originated with the city’s human inhabitants, the strength of the novel lies in Kurti’s skill in creating an animal world of utter credibility, easily as subtle, complex and devious as our own. As with Blackman’s novel, the central questions are seen to be about trust, truth and loyalty, abstractions treated here with invigorating originality.
“Twelve years old. My last year of normal life in the world.” Thus states the titular hero of Allen Zadoff’s Boy Nobody (Orchard, £6.99), now aged 16 and reviewing four years spent as a teenage assassin. Hired by a government organisation known as The Program, this depersonalised adolescent has carried out his previous assignments with chilling efficiency. When, however, his new target is the mayor of New York and, especially, when he encounters Samaro, the mayor’s daughter, he is forced to pause and consider the legitimacy of the demands made on him by his shadowy employers. As flashback details of the boy’s childhood begin to emerge and his relationship with Samaro develops – “We’re both trapped in lives we didn’t choose,” she says at one point – the novel becomes a thought-provoking psychological study of control and freedom, obedience and dissent. Its laconic, staccato style, even in its violent moments, adds considerably to its merits.
Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books.