Teenage fiction

Geraldine Brennan

LADY: MY LIFE AS A BITCH. By Melvin Burgess. Andersen Press pound;10.99. TES Direct pound;9.99

"He talks our language: how does he know?" said one secondary school pupil who had a pre-publication glimpse of the latest teenage novel to strike the public as mad, bad and dangerous.

This is a garrulous book. When 17-year-old Sandra is turned into a dog called Lady, her ears are tuned to dog voices. She has an engaging voice herself, both as Lady and Sandra, although she does tend to repeat herself (as dogs do). The mouthy double-act of Mitch and Fella, both former humans who've been "turned", is one of the pleasures of this voyage into Sandra's new world of extremes: smells, textures, colour and movement crowd in from the moment she hits the ground running on four legs. Fella plays devil's advocate in a speech urging Lady to give up on human existence - "Work wife kids dead...and if you're not lucky then it's booze drugs dead" - while Sandra-inside-Lady insists: "I want it back: all of it. The good bits and the bad bits."

By the end of the novel, she has succumbed to the lure of Lady's life on the edge: "I want to be quick and fast and happy and then dead." Exploring how she reaches this point might prove more interesting for young readers in the long term than how much sex she has. She has a lot of sex as a dog - for readers pressed for time, it's on pages 124-126 - but does not have sex as a human within the time frame of the novel.

Sandra's metamorphosis is in the fairy-tale tradition of a more cautionary cursed gift on the lines of "if life's not exciting enough, try this". On the surface, dogs have more fun: they can chase cats, masturbate in public, sniff each other's private parts without being introduced and, when they're on heat, have lots of sex for days on end. They will only get away with doing much of any of this, however, if they are strays without spoilsport humans in tow, and strays are more likely to be run over by a bus or picked up by busybodies and sent on a one-way trip to the vet.

There is poignancy in this tale as well as comedy; Lady's touching relationship with her on-and-off master, Terry (the homeless alcoholic responsible for "turning" her in a fit of temper), is more convincing than her attempts to bond with her family in her dog disguise, perhaps because we have had more chance to engage with Terry as a character. The grotesque images of Lady trying to dress in Sandra's clothes contradict the pathos of her predicament and the realisation that being "turned" is a one-way trip too: she chooses a dog's life because there is no choice.

In Junk, Melvin Burgess's 1996 novel about young heroin addicts, there was an obvious evil to decry. He left readers in no doubt that heroin is bad for you, while hinting at why some people like it so much.

In Lady, it's 17-year-old Sandra's delight in sex, part of her delight in her own gorgeousness, that bothers adults, even though it's legal. She does recall having sex before 16, partly for the thrill of breaking the rules: for a girl who likes to live for the moment, the age of consent seems "like your dad standing at the end of the bed with a stopwatch").

Burgess's message seems sensible enough: sex is not necessarily bad for you, but compulsive promiscuity is best avoided. We meet Sandra at the point where she has started to work this out for herself, realising that the attractions of multiple sexual partners and staying out late are limited; that it's short-sighted to discard old friends and mess up her GCSE retakes. She only pretends to ignore her sister's warnings about her lifestyle ("you're gonna catch something, you're gonna get pregnant").

Like the readers mature enough to tackle the concepts outlined early in the book, such as the dogs' debate on what it means to be human, Sandra is using her brain. Read Lady yourself before deciding which pupils to recommend it to, but be quick or you will find that the library copy has gone walkies.


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Geraldine Brennan

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