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Teenage trauma unzipped

In the Bag

By Jim Carrington

BLOOMSBURY, pound;6.99

4 out of 5

I have never been a fan of the "kitchen sink" school of fiction for children and young adults. While we all recognise that family breakdowns, sex, drugs, alcohol and poverty play too big a part in many children's lives, I am not convinced that we need to rub their noses in it when it comes to reading.

However, interacting with a text is a complex process and reading is an important way to make sense of the world in which we live. So it is only right that books should reflect those things and help their readers to understand them. My only caveat is that the unrelenting misery should not be glamourised, gratuitous or false.

Jim Carrington is not guilty on any of these counts. Despite the alcohol, drugs, family ructions and general "hanging-out-at-the rec" scenes that form the background, these are not its focus; it is the decisions made by the teenage Ash and Joe when they find a crashed car in the woods and, nearby, a bag containing, among other things, pound;20,000. It is late at night, they have been drinking and taking it to the police is not an option. By morning Ash has talked himself, and then Joe, into believing that hanging on to the money and spending some of it is the most attractive and sensible decision.

This is the start of a pacy, tense story that is a page-turner from the start. Told in alternate chapters by Ash and Joe, the book explores the relationship between the two friends as Ash, in particular, makes one bad decision after another. And over the course of the week in which the book is set, those decisions force them further and further from their comfort zone, into a world of danger where pound;20,000 of drug money means big men with guns determined to reclaim what is "rightfully" theirs.

Ash's propensity for making the wrong decisions is not helped by the bravado he counterfeits to disguise his pain at the impending break-up of his parents' marriage. Vulnerable to an extent he has not grasped, he slips into drug-dealing and gun-carrying while all the time justifying these dangerous developments as somehow sensible responses to their ever- deteriorating situation.

Joe is more balanced and his supportive, if naive, family background is a stabilising factor. As the dynamics between the two boys, and between them and their friends, changes, the overriding question becomes just what will it take for Ash finally to make the right decision, own up to having got it all wrong and involve the police?

The book contains a series of moral and ethical dilemmas which would make excellent discussion points with a class. And in a wider context, the author raises searching questions about our capacity to make decisions, what constitutes good and bad decision making, why we find it difficult to admit we have got something wrong and the psychologically destructive power of guilty secrets.

I could quibble with its melodramatic ending and mutter about the lack of richness of language, but In the Bag is a thoroughly good read and teenagers, especially boys, will love it. At the same time they will have to think about important issues. And that cannot be a bad thing.


Jim Carrington grew up in Norfolk before moving to London, where he is a primary teacher. In the Bag is his second novel. His first, Inside My Head, has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal and longlisted for the UKLA Book Award.

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