Going for a World Song


YOUNG ADULT/TEEN FICTION: ROBERT DUNBARhas the pick of the latest young-adult novels

WITH THE DEATH, last December, of Russell Hoban, we said farewell to one of the most original voices in contemporary fiction. Whether in his picture books, his children’s novels or his writing for adults, Hoban never failed to challenge his readers with his imaginative narratives or his stylistic inventiveness, even if at times he may have seemed almost wilfully eccentric or obscure. His final picture book, Rosie’s Magic Horse, will be published in the autumn, but in the meantime we have Soonchild (Walker, £9.99), a short novel for young adults that acts as a poignant coda to the body of work that preceded it.

The notion of a coda is appropriate here, not just because this is a novel with its own haunting musicality but also because it takes song and singing as one of its central motifs. Set in the snowy landscapes of the Arctic, and imbued with numerous resonances of indigenous myth and legend, the narrative focuses on the situation confronting a shaman, known as Sixteen-Face John, and his pregnant wife, known as No Problem, when their imminently expected baby makes it clear from her mother’s womb that she will not be leaving there until she hears the “World Songs”.

John’s response is to embark on a hazardous quest to find this elusive music, a quest that takes him on a magical, mystical tour through a land of creatures great and small, of the living and the dead. Fear and darkness are everywhere, waiting to be overcome, in this wonderfully timeless and atmospheric story. Its pencil-sketch illustrations by Alexis Deacon and its extremely high production values make this a book as attractive to look at and handle as it is to read.

The Toronto that serves as the principal setting for Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink and Caution (Walker, £6.99) may not be all that far removed geographically from Hoban’s northern snowscape, but it is in most other respects a different world. Here are two 21st-century teenagers, just about surviving on the city’s seedier streets, brought together in an attempt to discover the truth behind the apparent kidnapping of a wealthy industrialist. There are times when certain details in this fast-moving narrative could well be questioned on the grounds of credibility, but Blink and Caution are convincingly rounded characters, each given fascinating backstories and bouncing engagingly off one another as their shared status as damaged adolescents mutates into something deeper.

Brash and even sometimes reckless as their exteriors may be, their inner uncertainties and insecurities are never totally masked; the wounds of their earlier childhoods are still raw.

While the adolescents who populate the pages of Felicity McCall’s entertaining debut novel, Large Mammals, Stick Insects and Other Social Misfits (Little Island, €8.99), could hardly be described as damaged, they certainly have their share of anxieties – even if most of these, to an adult world, will seem quite trivial and often self-inflicted.

The setting is a Derry mercifully beyond the Troubles, where teenagers can pursue their own agendas, with youthful romance, burgeoning sexuality, fashion and social networking high on the list. Aimée McCourt-Logan, the first-person narrator, proves a spirited guide to the events that unravel when, one Halloween, students from Dublin come to her school on an exchange visit.

The story contains some marvellously satirical swipes directed at the idiom and intent of contemporary Ulster’s political correctness. The plot, meanwhile, may involve, in Aimee’s summary, “a mass arrest, two disappearances and a phantom pregnancy scare”, but it is all great fun.

Kevin McDermott’s Valentina (Little Island, €9.99) is altogether more serious in purpose, though by no means without its moments of sharp, and occasionally dark, humour. This is a futuristic novel, its setting an Ireland in which, as the opening sentence expresses it, “Everything changed when the ice cap collapsed and the number of immigrants trying to get on board our island ran into millions.”

The consequences of “change” are conveyed to us in the first-person narrative of Valentina, the daughter of Ireland’s president. She has been brought up in the privileged and affluent world of “the Citadel” but will soon experience change herself when circumstances take her and a couple of friends beyond her comfort zone into the more threatening territory of the Badlands.

McDermott skilfully links his speculative vision of a possible future with intriguing echoes of the country’s history and, in the process, gives us a novel ambitious in its scope and impressive in its attainment.