Art, incest and growing up

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Set in Stone. By Linda Newbery. David Fickling Books. 12.99

Ivy. By Julie Hearn. Oxford University Press. pound;5.99

This Strange New Life. By Rachel Anderson. Oxford University Press. Pounds 5.99

Looking for X. By Deborah Ellis. Oxford University Press. pound;5.99

Turbulence. By Jan Mark. Hodder Children's Books. pound;5.99

The Penderwicks. By Jeanne Birdsall. David Fickling Books. pound;10.99

Works of art can be revelatory or secretive, a window or a key into the nature of lives once lived. In two period novels, portraits become the inspiration and the starting point for absorbing and turbulent narratives.

Set in Stone by Linda Newbery sees a young art graduate, Samuel Godwin, arrive at a solitary house, Fourwinds, in the late 19th century, as art tutor to the daughters of Ernest Farrow, a hermit businessman with refined tastes in design and architecture. The house turns out to be riddled with the darkest secrets. Marianne, the youngest daughter, spends her nights in a terrorised trance; elder sister Juliana is constantly pale and anxious; Charlotte Agnew, the girls' governess, unnaturally reserved.

Godwin is drawn into their destinies and particularly to the beauty and passionate nature of Marianne, an obsession that leads him to horrific revelations as well as his finest work.

Set in Stone is a Gothic romance dealing with the most taboo subject of all - incest - but suitable for readers of 14 and above. Newbery has created a climactic period story, compelling in its description and psychological drama, to relay the horror of familial abuse. The relationship between art and the turbulence of life is starkly framed.

Ivy by Julie Hearn is a delicious, somewhat lighter flight of imaginative storytelling, inspired by a painting of Beatrice by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti made several versions - the redhead in the later paintings appearing quite different to the figure in earlier ones thought to be of Lizzie Siddal, his wife. The Pre-Raphaelites often took girls from the streets, known as "stunners", as their models; Hearn has recreated the life of a "stunner" in this lively, bitter-sweet, warm and sensuous story. Dickensian in flavour, Ivy provokes laughter and sadness in equal measure and is a rollicking good read for ages 12 and upwards.

The remaining four notable novels take a range of approaches to family life and growing up. This Strange New Life by Rachel Anderson is a fascinating journey into the minds and bodies of two brothers beset by chronic fatigue syndromeME and the effect their condition has on their family. A challenging and inventive story based on Anderson's own experience of having two sons with CFS (Friday magazine, March 31), this novel dispels myths about the condition. Johnnie Johanna has always looked up to her brothers Andy, a brilliant musician, and Chris, a successful geologist.

When they are laid low, she becomes the mainstay of her beleaguered mum and a third brother with special needs, until her own life threatens to get out of hand. This complex but extremely well-written novel has pace, wit and charm and the condition never gets the better of the storyline.

In Looking for X, Deborah Ellis charts the life of Khyber, daughter of ex-stripper but infinitely wise Tammy, and sister to two autistic brothers.

Like Johnnie, Khyber struggles to manage her emotions at a time when difficult family decisions have to be made. This is a short, eloquent and elegant novel full of loveable characters.

Turbulence by the late Jan Mark, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, charts more commonplace ups and downs of contemporary family life through the eyes of Clay, a pithy adolescent commentator on the idiocies of adult behaviour.

When a new family moves into the neighbourhood relationships start to get complicated and Clay despairs when the dynamics in her already eccentric family take an unwelcome turn. Mark has always championed the adolescent world view in succinct, witty prose. Her presence will be much missed.

The Penderwicks, a first novel by Jeanne Birdsall, recounts a holiday adventure set in the US, involving a father, his four daughters and a dog called Hound. Although still struggling with the death of their mother from cancer, the girls are thoroughly engaged by the prospect of a three-week cottage holiday in the Berkshire Mountains. Winner of the US National Book Award, this is a feel-good tale of how the four sisters reduce the lives of the family next door to near anarchy. The Penderwicks is a well-crafted story, warm, funny, rounded - a real pick-me-up.

Elaine Williams

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