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Dark family portrait;Children's books

THE ILLUSTRATED MUM. By Jacqueline Wilson. Doubleday pound;10.99.

On a good day Marigold is adorable - like a dazzling fairytale princess with endless ideas for adventures, games and stories. But more often she's moody, clingy and demanding, and on bad days she can't face the world at all and needs to be handled with a parent's mixture of firmness and love. The parenting task falls to her daughters, who are 10 and 13.

Jacqueline Wilson's novels, which are devoured by girls of eight and over, often feature heroines with cares on their shoulders but this is the darkest story she has told to date, with no chance of a fairytale ending. The picture is one of grand-scale parental neglect and of society's habit of turning anyone who is mentally unstable into an outcast.

Star and Dolphin's new-age names are the least of their problems. Their mother is an alcoholic and suffers from manic depression (although we don't know the diagnosis for some time - to the world she is simply "weird" and "crazy"). She is unable to be their mother, failing even to give them breakfast (often because she's not home from clubbing). At first their fathers are out of the picture; when Star's dad reappears he brings upheaval rather than stability.

The driving force behind this novel, besides an edge-of-the-seat plot, is the girls' enduring love for their mother despite her inadequacy. It is this, and the author's unsentimental compassion, that makes such grim material palatable for young readers and means the book will be a lifeline for some.

For Star, the older daughter, the weight of responsibility means love has become mixed up with cynicism, shame and contempt. It's left to Dolphin, the narrator, to point to her mother's loveable side - her spontaneity, charisma and creative flair. The tattoos that cover Marigold's body - gradually unveiled in one of the clever, child-appealing narrative structures that have become a trademark of this author's collaboration with illustrator Nick Sharratt - will fascinate children as they fascinate Dolphin. Wilson astutely makes clear that Marigold is not a scary figure to her daughters, although she leads them into scary situations: it's other adults who are scared, and Star and Dolphin suffer for their fear.

This story is not too much for children to take, although Jacqueline Wilson's younger fans, who will queue up to read her as always, might benefit from the chance to talk about it. For adults, the combination of pain and pleasure involved in Marigold's self-decoration reflects life in the fragile family. Some passages are unbearable to read from an adult's point of view: Dolphin's nightmare trip to the seaside with her mother; Star's efforts to protect her sister and her doomed search for an escape route. Somehow you know Dolphin's oddball friend and the kind school librarian won't be able to sort this one out. The ending is as double-edged as life is.

The publisher is giving away instant tattoos to some of Wilson's fans. Childline numbers for the children and boxes of Kleenex for the adults might be more appropriate.

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