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.