I have recently read two excellent books for teenagers; one of them is just out, the other has been out for some time, but the subject matter of the two seems to go together, both dealing with issues around boys and violence, both exciting novels, but also sensitive and perceptive, and managing never to moralise.
The first is Gillian
Philip’s Crossing the Line, which was published last year – and she has blogged here about writing it. It deals with the aftermath of a stabbing: Aidan Mahon was stabbed while trying to protect his girlfriend Allie from a school bully. The bully just happens to have once been in a school gang with the narrator, Nick Geddes, who is Allie’s elder brother. Nick, cut loose from the gang, is now isolated at school, traumatised by the murder, and bewildered about life. He’s also drop-dead gorgeous, Philip leaves us in no doubt about that, and so is his sister. So is the girl he loves, Orla – who is the murdered Aidan’s sister.
Nick’s other problems include his beloved grandmother, who’s now suffering from Alzheimers, his ineffectual ageing-hippy father, who drinks, and his mother, who has a rather vapid and highly embarrassing New-Age spirituality slot on the local radio. The novel weaves past and present together with superb aplomb; it really kept me turning the pages, completely gripped, and also amused, because Nick has a sense of humour, however bad things are.
Inside, by Julia Jarman, is the story of Lee who is ‘inside for a crime he has committed. He’s mugged an old lady and put her in hospital. Now, angry, resentful, and scared, he’s sent to Parkhall Young Offenders Institution. He’s at a tipping point in his life: ‘You can turn yourself round in here, Lee, if you stick to the rules,’ the nurse tells him. Only Parkhall is full of young criminals who are determined what will happen to Lee is further training in crime and gang culture
When I was young and a student, I did voluntary work with adolescent offenders, and they were just like the characters in this novel. I remember looking at them and seeing grown lads with the minds and emotional maturity of toddlers. They’re lads who’ve never had a chance, actually; I remember the principal of Newton Aycliffe Approved School saying to us: ‘If you think where these lads are coming from, you’re surprised they’ve done as well as they have.’ This is certainly true of Lee; Jarman gradually, subtly, builds up the picture of his background on a sink estate with a mother who isn’t able to cope with her money, with her life, with parenthood. We may not have street children in our society, but there are too many who are literally cast away, from the moment they’re born, deprived of the loving hard work and care it takes to properly bring up a child.
All the same, Lee is frightening. He’s beaten his own mother up, a crime even the other young offenders despise – and his cell-mate, the horrible Sharpey, knows about this and uses the knowledge to control him. All through the book, you’re trembling for him, knowing that his future hangs in the balance – will he be able to turn himself round, or will he slither downwards?
The novel’s told in Lee’s own voice, and Jarman has rendered it brilliantly, a mixture of brutality and vulnerability. It is, in many ways, the voice of a child. But a child who’s effectively on his own, who has to make major choices with the odds stacked against him.
A novel for teens has to have the teenager solving their own problems – that’s what it’s about. The teen novel is always, in my view, the classic Bildungsroman. But there are adults in both these books who help; the teacher McCluskey in Crossing the Line, and in Inside, the prison officer McGiven (what is it with Scots?) who’s able to be tough and caring at the same time. And the youth worker, who reported Lee to the police, but who is himself an ex-offender and who reaches out to Lee. These are bits of good fortune that I’m sadly aware aren’t available for many kids. God help them.