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Review - A slap in the face and on the back

Hmm. 'Koff is a puzzling book. The novel, by debut author Ali Cargill, reads like young adult fiction. Its narrator, Emily, is 15, and her story is correspondingly full of "well weird" or "simply grrrreat". (The latter, I am afraid, simply grates.) But the story itself appears to be aimed at teachers and social workers.

Emily is a near-permanent inmate of the Unit, her school's time-out suite for troubled pupils. Here, she observes her Unit suite-mates: Duncan, who was neglected by his father, and incorrigible bad boy Marcus. Emily is also struggling to cope with her own home life: an emotionally absent father, a bullying stepmother and their new baby.

It is the school part of the narrative that seems to be aimed, like a book-shaped punch to the face, at teachers. While the staff at the Unit understand that a pupil in meltdown is likely to feel trapped, classroom teachers block the door during an argument or back the pupil into a corner.

Hints of an agenda slip out elsewhere, too. In a reference to Year 7 enrichment activities, Emily deadpans: "I hope they've been enriched." This reads like Cargill's axe-grinding, rather than the musings of a troubled teenager.

Indeed, at points like these, Emily seems more social commentator than character. "He wants to learn," she says of Marcus. "Only so many things seem to get in the way. Like himself."

We do not see Emily act up herself at school. We are told, briefly, that she "kicked off in drama", but this is purely to illustrate the cause-and-effect cycle of a troubled home life. Mostly, she is just a passive, hunched-up observer of others' tantrums. She is a mouthpiece for The Message.

She is also a daydreamer: every so often, for no apparent reason and with no stylistic signposting, Emily recounts an imaginary adventure. I think Cargill realises the confusion this creates: at one point she is forced to say, "No wait: this isn't a dream. It's real!"

In the home-life sections, however - when we see Emily actually doing, rather than observing - the book comes to life. Cargill makes it vividly clear that Emily's enforced babysitting of her new sister is one of the few positive things in her life. This creates a genuine dilemma: should she report her stepmother's behaviour and risk losing contact with her sister?

Emily's growing trust in the Unit workers and her social worker is also heart-rending. And it is a nice change to encounter a sympathetic, effective social worker in fiction.

Somewhere in here, there is a touching, moving novel. It is a shame, therefore, that Cargill has only written half of it.

'Koff by Ali Cargill is published on 2 March (Mole End Cafe Publishing, #163;7.99).

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