Children's Literature

10th May 1996 at 01:00
SPIRIT OF THE PLACE. By Dennis Hamley. ScholasticAdlib Pounds 7.99

TUNNEL VISION. By Malcolm Rose. ScholasticAdlib Pounds 8.99

Dennis Hamley's exhilarating Spirit of the Place reads like a starter-pack Possession, with undergraduate Lindsey Lovelock becoming uncomfortably engrossed in Nicholas Fowler, a lesser 18th-century poet. Hamley, writing as Fowler, gives us such memorable lines as those "Composed for the Building of the New Grotto at Coswold, April 1774" and if this bad poet's couplets can be, at worst, "villanous", it is perhaps because his heart and mind are all over the place in a manic compulsion to venture "outside the boundaries of revealed truth".

Dallying with Mr Priestley and the Royal Society, desecrating his country estate in a quest for a sublime landscape of his own making, designing a hand-sewn pig's-bladder condom for his visits to a select London brothel, is it any surprise that Fowler comes unstuck, if not unstitched, landing himself in an upper-crust asylum? How appropriate, too,that Coswold should eventually house a 1990s centre for top-secret genetic research, whose perimeters Lindsey and her scientist boyfriend Rod finally breach with alarming consequences.

Hamley pulls off a finale that reminds us that the Age of Reason is also the age of Matthew ("Monk") Lewis: celebrating the completion of a grotto to rival Pope's at Twickenham; demonstrating a miraculous invention powered by electricity; enlisting the assistance of the heavens during an electrical storm, Fowler is cruelly straitjacketed in his moment of triumph by a posse masquerading as poet-students of Dr Johnson.

Simultaneously, allowing for a 200-year timeslip, Lindsey and Rod suffer a similar incarceration (she in hospital, he in police custody) having been apprehended mid-virtual-reality encounter with - as far as they're concerned - Fowler himself. The rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

Hamley's characters aren't alone in anticipating a genetically engineered Ubermensch. In Tunnel Vision, Malcolm Rose's blond beautiful Pat seeks perfection through radical purification. He creates the Fellowship, a band of hopeless hopefuls. Then he promotes an addictive sporting camaraderie among members of the (Great White) Sharks football team and - in central character Joel Skinner's case - in the heart of a long-distance runner. Last, and in secret, he provides himself with enough radioactive material to decimate the black-athlete-dominated sprints at the Sheffield Games.

Pat can bank on the disadvantaged not asking awkward questions. Joel is, afterall, being allowed to forget the disfiguring disease that marred his childhood and split his family. He is even being encouraged to "bond" with the luscious Kristin, whose bijou flat alone would tempt one used to a spartan bedsit. Yet he still needs to know why he can't pursue an important friendship with Maria, a Ugandan fellow student. For all but the entirely mindless, some questions just have to be asked if not answered.

Very much an "issue" read, Tunnel Vision is nonetheless compulsive. It's rather two-dimensional characters are somehow at one with Joel's disinclination to look for a third dimension until he has no option. For a boy who's never had any icing on his cake, it's hardly surprising that he wants to indulge in a little lip-smacking. But if he shares a colour and a love of athletics with Pat, he more importantly shares a knowledge of isolation and human frailty with Maria. Issues of races and racing become issues of race and racism in an ultimately exuberant novel that places a deft finger on the mid teenage pulse.

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