Children’s books: Sheena Wilkinson’s ‘Still Falling’ and ‘Each Slow Dusk’

Stories of complex adolescent love in Northern Ireland

 

With her first two young-adult novels, Taking Flight and Grounded, Sheena Wilkinson quickly established a reputation as one of our foremost writers for this age group. Winners of several awards, these novels, both set in Northern Ireland, showed a willingness and an ability to confront a range of issues and themes likely to be of interest and relevance to the contemporary adolescent.

Her new novel, the excellent Still Falling (Little Island, €9.99), is more ambitious than its predecessors and will do nothing to lessen her popularity with her teenage readership. It demonstrates a new concern with matters of form, features a young cast whose behaviour and motivation are increasingly complex and provides a great deal of insight into the worlds, not least the Ulster worlds, of love, sexuality, education and class.

The year is 2014, and it is the first day of the autumn term at Mansfield, a Belfast grammar school run on what would seem to be fairly traditional lines, the sort of place where “all the corridors are identical tunnels of scuffed cream walls punctuated by black bins and blue doors”. Wilkinson captures with a wonderful sense of authenticity the atmosphere of these institutional corridors and keeps a sharply focused eye on the teachers and pupils who travel them daily.

If any criticism at all is to be made of the book’s portrayal of school life it is the one that applies to most fictional accounts of the subject, namely that they have little to say about the nature or quality of the teaching that goes on in the classroom.

Novels are not intended to be manuals of educational practice, but it would nevertheless be interesting to see something of the teaching that, only a few weeks into the beginning of term, demands that first-year A-level English students write an essay entitled “Is Fitzgerald’s presentation of the women characters in The Great Gatsby misogynistic?”

Esther Wilson, a 16-year-old returning to Mansfield as a sixth-former, is one of those who have to contend with such an essay. But, on her first day back and on many days between then and Halloween, her attention is elsewhere. A young man, 17-year-old Luke Bresson – “lean, hot, very hot” – has come to Mansfield from Belvedere High, or “the Bearpit as everybody called it, one of the roughest schools in Belfast”. We are prepared from the moment of their first encounter for an extremely cleverly plotted variation on the theme of worlds divided by family circumstances, by social conditions and by educational provision and opportunity.

By way of extra complication, Luke has epilepsy, an aspect of her novel that Wilkinson handles with great skill and subtlety. In the course of her story the boy has two seizures, in describing both of which she totally avoids the twin dangers of sensationalism and sentimentality: it is an impressive achievement.

Presented in short, alternating first-person chapters as if written by Esther and Luke themselves, Wilkinson’s plot traces the evolution of their relationship. Simultaneously, this relationship is placed within the context of their individual histories, their school environment of friendships and rivalries and their family situations. Where the last of these are concerned a particularly telling contrast is drawn between Luke’s relationship with his foster parents and Esther’s with her much more conventional mother and father.

Their psychological needs and their urges for physical gratification are neatly and convincingly balanced, and although some readers may anticipate the explanation for Luke’s initial reticence in sexual matters they will still find the revelation, when it comes, to be both shocking and thematically appropriate. And as for the teenagers’ future? There is no green Gatsby light, signalling a coming shared euphoria, but tomorrow at least, to adopt Fitzgerald’s closing words, they may run faster and stretch out their arms further.

More evidence of Wilkinson’s strengths as a writer may be seen in a short story, Each Slow Dusk, that she has contributed to the anthology Stories Inspired by Objects from the Great War (Walker Books, £12.99). Her focus is once again on a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Edith, who, like Esther, is caught between two worlds. But these are different worlds and different times. Edith, a bright young woman, has visions of “the wrought-iron gates of Queen’s University swinging open to let me in”, but the dream has to be set against the reality of leaving school to care for a widowed father and a brother, badly damaged mentally and physically, recently returned from the horrors of the first World War trenches.

With the help of some carefully chosen details of Edith’s home and school life Wilkinson conveys a vivid sense of Ulster period and place. But her real achievement here is the manner in which, employing a spare style and displaying particular skill in her use of dialogue, she handles her small cast of characters, adroitly placing their personal conflicts within the encroaching shadow of the major event that has torn them apart.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books

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