Children's fiction

18th February 2000 at 00:00
HEAVEN EYES. By David Almond. Hodder Children's Books, pound;10.

When three damaged children run away from Whitegates residential home and its regime of institutionalised "therapies" to sail a home-made raft down the Tyne, they are washed ashore on the mud of the Black Middens. There, amid derelict warehouses, they encounter the alarming Grampa and the unearthly child, Heaven Eyes.

The subject of David Almond's third novel for children is the right use of memory to integrate past and present. "We want to heal your scars and wash your cares away," says the matron at Whitegates, but Almond seems to be suggesting that some scars should be cherished, certainly not hidden.

The book is a celebration of and a lament for the lost working communities of the North-east. The physical demolition of wharves, warehouses, shipyards and docks, a landscape of visible reminders, is only part of the brutal forgetting challenged by DavidAlmond.

Reading Skellig, the 1998 novel which brought Almond to deserved fame, I was convinced that he was not writing within the fantasy tradition - a conviction that grew on reading Kit's Wilderness and has been confirmed by Heaven Eyes. With his magical realism style, he is becoming the Gabriel Garc!a M rquez of children's fiction.

In one moving sequence, the children dig up the body of a young dockworker preserved like Tollund Man in the Black Middens ooze. There is no place for nostalgia. Instead, Grampa has a psychotic obsession with digging in the mud to salvage debris, his "treasure". And his real salvaged treasure, Heaven Eyes, has been kept in the dark about her own past.

Whether the deeper historical themes of this book will be accessible to teenagers for whom the miners' strike is not even a memory, is hard to predict, but communities still vanish, now in farming country.

JANNI HOWKER.


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