Children's Literature

12th May 1995 at 01:00
Chandra, By Frances Mary Hendry, 0 19 271712 X. The Golden Gate Murders,By Marilyn Sachs. 0 19 271687 5. The Night After Tomorrow, By Sue Welford. 0 19 271726 X. Dragon's Rock, By Tim Bowler. 0 19 271693 X. Wolfecho, By Roger Green. 0 19 271709 X. Oxford University Press, #163;5.99 each

Oxford University Press has moved into first-edition paperbacks with its new teenage fiction list, and the first five titles are a set of fast moving stories which suit the form.

Chandra is a story of escape and survival. It opens in Delhi, with an 11-year-old Hindu girl's excitement as she approaches an arranged marriage to a 16-year-old cousin from the country. Things suddenly turn ugly when she visits her young husband on his father's farm only to find that he has died the week before.

Tradition has it that it must be her fault, and on arrival she is spat at, beaten, and imprisoned in purdah, a solitary confinement for which her hair is shorn off and her beautiful garments replaced with rags. Most galling of all, she realises her parents knew what she would face when they waved her off at the bus station, maintaining the fiction that she would be returning in a couple of weeks.

This is the stuff of major trauma, but Chandra is never quite as destroyed by this double whammy of mental torture and parental betrayal as an 11-year-old would surely be. Nevertheless Frances Mary Hendry tells a compelling story about tradition as an excuse for male hegemony, and maintains tension until the end.

Mathew and Mathilda's parents in The Golden Gate Murders exercise a more unintended tyranny. Planning a divorce they decide to split the 11-year-old twins, the father taking Mathew and the mother staying in the family home with Mathilda. Not only do the emotionally close children not want to be separated, they each feel more comfortable with the parent of the opposite sex. Faced with parental obstinacy the pair run away to an uncle in San Francisco, but his flat is empty and they spend their time dossing down among the vagrants in Golden Gate Park.

The murders - a serial killer on the loose with a tin of poison - are secondary to Marilyn Sachs's sympathetic portrayal of the homeless who stay in the park at nightfall, and the adventures of two increasingly worried children as they try to survive on their own. Readers enticed by the book's blurb to expect blood and suspense could well find the humane focus of the story frustrating, but this is an involving, well-paced novel for the younger end of the secondary age range, who will not be troubled by adult grumbles about an over happy ending.

In The Night After Tomorrow Sue Welford shows a sharp awareness of the dangerous mix of worldly knowledge and gullibility which can lead a teenager to odd conclusions. In this case 16-year-old Jess is persuaded to help a lonely youth mix a potion of virgin's blood to cure his mother of her nocturnal prowlings as a werewolf rather than fetch a doctor.

Jess has retreated to Auntie Pegg's farm to get over her boyfriend's fatal motorcycle crash. Local livestock is being killed by an unidentified predator. Luc thinks it is his mother, a recluse who never comes out into the sunlight. But Luc is an isolated boy whose contact with the outside is limited to a crackly radio and old books of spooky tales. He feels more hard pressed by the fate of his ancestors in France, burned at the stake as werewolves.

This is an eerie brew. As the sexually inexperienced but obsessive Luc draws Jess into this scheme the suspense mounts, with the author always one sinister step ahead of the reader in a gripping and fascinating tale.

Tim Bowler conjures up sinister Devon mists in his second novel, Dragon's Rock. Fourteen-year-old Ben's parents are in Hong Kong and he is spending Christmas on a farm belonging to friends of his parents. But the farmer's son, Toby, hates Ben. Toby is practical and fierce where Ben is sensitive and intuitive and their conflict is played out in a nightmarish chiller which blends the flavour of Twin Peaks with Alan Garner.

In Roger J Green's ambitious Wolfecho, Scot's dad is an unemployed Falklands veteran from a long line of fighting fathers, and he has no doubt about how his son should square up to the world. Scot escapes by playing around the old tunnels and industrial riverscape of the decaying city centre. But in this warren of echoing brickwork his spirit is increasingly summoned by the voice of a Norman warrior from the 11th century, who seeks a kindred spirit from the future to fetch him the firepower of the 20th century.

Green is at his best evoking the dank and withered environment of Scot's inner city wilderness and contrasting it with the bright clear air of the early middle ages. But brutality is ugly everywhere and this unlikely way of dealing with a boy's attempt to escape the domination of violent role models works, though Scot's inner turmoil is overwritten, slowing down the pace of a novel which could be shorter.

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