A kind hand offered to the helpless

26th September 1997 at 01:00
NO ROOF IN BOSNIA, By Els de Groen, Spindlewood Pounds 10.95

There's something about tragedy: we know what it is, even if we've never heard of the ancient Greeks. It's that painfully cold place where we, who are safe, are frozen into the chilling stance of spectator to another's suffering. We watch, yet know we cannot help. It is all too distant, too vast and too dreadful. And we, maybe, are too weak. We are as children again, staring in open-mouthed horror, wanting someone, somewhere, to do something.

Some commentators would like children's writers to deny this need; witness the pious hysteria over Melvin Burgess's Junk. Such critics would have us close the blinds of Nineties family values and switch off the TV news so that young readers can concentrate on important things like stencilling their bedrooms. But some of us won't oblige, and No Roof in Bosnia breaks through the barriers of silence to extend a kind and thoughtful hand both to the watchers and the watched.

Readers between the ages of 12 and 15 will surely already have many images of recent conflicts in their minds: the Gulf War, the plight of the Kurds, Rwanda and now the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Such images are indelible, and novels such as this offer mediation between that suffering and ours.

It does so very quietly, opening on one of those brilliant summer mornings which always seem to accompany our tragedies. Aida, 14, and now alone in the fatal tides of Bosnian refugees, is tempted into a deserted orchard by the apples - and is saved. Redemption is the teenage universe of new loves and hates, of courageous friendships, of sexual attraction and jealousy, and of the erratic swings between depression and elation. In the middle of the unforgivable brutalities and idiocies of the war, the dramatic highlight of this novel is a short telephone call made by one of the boys to his father in Sarajevo. Now here's a novelist who understands the craft.

I'd add this book to a list which should also include Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipovic (Puffin, 1995) and Michael Nicholson's Natasha's Story (Macmillan, 1993). They're all different, all very easy to read, none perhaps masterpieces, but they and their authors are what Don McCullin recently so aptly described as "couriers" in the face of tragedy. Let's not deny the need.

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