Billy's Drift, By Charles Ashton, Walker Books #163;8.99, 0 7445 2486 5 Age range: 10-12.
It is a brave novelist who sets out to make heroes of polecats. Only interested in freshly-slaughtered meat, these little beasts are nature's serial murderers, never so happy as when killing for its own sake. Readers hardly need reminding that polecats also possess the strongest of smells. They are not therefore a naturally cuddly animal, although certainly neat and pleasing to look at.
In Pyne, however, Jonathan Guy gladly takes up this challenge and on the whole comes out the winner. Having previously written about badgers and urban foxes, Guy knows his way around animal stories. He avoids the potentially risible humanised dialogue echoed a century ago in Black Beauty's courtly "How do you do?" on first meeting his pony friend Merrylegs. Guy's animals still communicate with each other and with different species, but in thoughts not words. Such thoughts are thoroughly human; there is no attempt to get into their minds in the way Rudyard Kipling tried in Thy Servant, a Dog. But no story can afford to exhaust children's patience by attempting too many verbal experiments. As it is, Pyne contains no dialogue, and still presents quite a tough prospect with paragraph after paragraph following one another without any welcome breaks for direct speech.
Fortunately the basic story of expulsion, exile and final reunion retains its immemorial appeal, and most young readers will be happy to accompany the polecats through their various adventures. Pyne's mate Cass sadly gets killed in a trap, but Pyne himself just makes it. The author at one time describes "The odour of cruelty and evil" accompanying man's scent . But not all the game-keepers in this book are depicted as bad, and to claim issues of right and wrong where such indiscriminate killers as polecats are concerned raises as many questions as it answers. Never mind; Pyne is a good try, slightly morose in tone but always well-written and convincing.I would guess it will remain the best novel about polecats for some time.
Charles Ashton's Billy's Drift is more of a problem. There is an excellent story of small-time countryside crime and failure buried in its pages. But maddeningly the author confuses everything by splitting his narrative between chunks of a diary, letters and the story itself. Ashton always writes skilfully; the brooding sense of impending disaster is well caught when young Billy, not yet 14, realises that his father and some neighbours are involved with stolen goods. Billy's overwhelming love for his new dog is also described in a way that will surely convince even those who detest these pets.
But the dog is killed, and after that it is not just Billy but the whole story that falls to pieces. Out-of-body experiences combine with visions of the past in a way quite out of keeping with the tough realism of what has come before. Different characters enter the narrative, some of whom are never sufficiently defined for readers to remember. The diary sections seem to be kept by a girl Billy's age who becomes involved with him and his mystery. These extracts are good in their evocation of adolescence on the edge of adulthood. But a potentially gripping story is ultimately frittered away through a mixture of over ingenuity and misplaced mysticism.Ashton seems certain to write a fine novel one day; unfortunately, Billy's Drift is not it, however good and memorable some of its pages.