Children's Literature

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Burning Issues, By Allan Frewin Jones, The Bodley Head #163;7.99, 0 370 31859 5. The Kidnapping of Suzie Q, By Catherine Sefton, Hamish Hamilton #163;8.99 0 241 00188 9.

In Burning Issues an exasperated teacher tells Julie Mayer, ". . . you really must try to stop being so unkind to people.

You sit scowling at the back of the class sniping at the others like some evil little spider".

Clever, disaffected Julie perversely accepts this as a compliment and, adopting the name of Spider, continues to snipe at everyone in range, beginning with her contemptible family, all of whom, in her opinion, are too stupid, crass and insensitive to understand her superior sensibilities.The exception was her beloved grandmother whose death at the beginning of the novel sets in motion the series of events that, coming to a head, bring Spider to confront the fact that her family's lack of understanding is matched and caused by her own disdain for them, and that her developing conscience is an organ deserving careful attention.

For Spider falls in love, and is loved in return, by the first person she has ever considered worthy of her, only to discover that he is a promising psychopath who, like many a terrorist before him, uses a Cause as an excuse for violence, possibly murder. Spider's mother, not unnaturally - since Spider refuses to talk to her - assumes that the moral dilemmas facing her daughter involve sex and drugs. Spider, having alienated anyone to whom she might have turned for advice and comfort, is forced first of all to endure the ordeal alone and then cautiously to establish ties with the despised family who, although they often find her impossible to like, love her nevertheless.

Allan Frewin Jones raises painful questions and offers no easy answers, but writes a penetrating, witty and hugely sympathetic narrative, while his ear for dialogue leaves one suspecting that he too lives surrounded by grisly teenagers and the kind of telly-fixated 12-year-old who imagines that to be a bookie's runner is to plumb the depths of underworld depravity.

Terrorism has nothing to do with The Kidnapping of Suzie Q, but, set as it is in Northern Ireland, the subsequent events are inevitably affected by the Troubles. Police response to an emergency call is delayed by a real and reasonable suspicion that it may be an IRA trap. A harmless motorist who gives Suzie's sister a lift finds himself ambushed by the army. The story could have happened anywhere, there is nothing specifically Irish about it, but because it does take place in Northern Ireland one is constantly reminded that the political situation infects every aspect of life there, even common criminality.

Suzie is an innocent bystander, taken hostage in a bungled raid on a supermarket, a terrifying experience made doubly so by her swift discovery that her kidnappers are very young, very frightened and, worst of all, very stupid. Mistakenly convinced that she knows who they are, they keep her captive, meanwhile haplessly scattering clues to their identity. Unprepared for hostage-taking, they have no idea of what to do with her. Since it is clear from the outset that Suzie survives to come home again, the suspense element in this tense, psychological thriller, is the escalating panic among the criminals who grow increasingly pathetic as Suzie gradually assumes control, first of herself and then of her captors, and sees them for what they really are, three desperate, miserable teenage losers, eventually reduced to clinging to the forlorn hope that she might be able to help them.

The end is as bleak as it has to be. Interspersed with Suzie's own story are accounts of the sufferings of her family, besieged by the press and resentful of the way the affair is handled by the police. No one emerges unscathed.

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