Children's Literature

14th July 1995 at 01:00
In the Middle of the Night. By Robert Cormier. Gollancz, #163;10.99. - 0 575 05983 4. Age range: 13 plus

Sixteen-year-old Denny Colbert is embroiled in a web of uncertainties; some are universal, others nightmarishly his own.

Eight years before his birth, his father was at the centre of a tragedy in which 22 children died. One victim is intent on a violent revenge that targets Denny. The imminent arrival of Hallowe'en, 25 years after the original catastrophe, brings the stomach-churning anniversary phone calls. When Denny defies his father's well-intentioned orders by answering the insistent ringing, his rebellion leads to the frightening assignation of the denouement. It is not, perhaps, always good to talk.

The narrative's credibility relies strongly on a brother and sister, ruined by their childhood fate, responding differently to it, and hence to Denny. Lulu is emotionally and physically damaged, corrupted by sorrow, "trapped in that eternity of nothing". She is the main instigator of tension, as Cormier deftly interweaves past and present. "You know what's going to happen," she says to her brother (and the reader) on page one, and the technically perfect construction exploits that implicit threat. We don't know, but we want to find out.

Lulu's spiteful cowardice resembles that of Milton's Satan: revenge on God through his creation. "He won't have any pain, but the pain of his father. " Her evil intensifies the picture of families under strain. While brother and sister expose the dangers of misplaced loyalty, Denny's family ultimately acquires dignity in adversity. Along the way, detail aggravates the dilemmas of mutual frustrations over ordinariness: learning to drive; answering the phone; a part-time job. Always, "his parents looking at him as if they had never looked at him before".

Young people will also acknowledge Denny's reactions to others who have an impact on his life. He seethes at the scuffling oafs, persistently sarcastic about his lack of a driving licence and apparent success with girls. The Senior Class President's "right combination of confidence and modesty" highlights his desire for the "separate peace" of school anonymity. A fellow victim's resigned submission, "Colbert, you've got a lot to learn," becomes linked with the hassled, hassling reporter, who unwittingly emphasises the wisdom of Mr Colbert's silence. "No comment," Denny learns, can be a brave stance.

Our involvement with the Colbert family is important to Cormier's masterly reworking of conventional sources of menace, when normality becomes harrowing. The telephone is an instrument of fear: please God that call is a wrong number. Letters are barely read, then burnt. The knock at the door, the newspaper headline, the glimpse of a face on television.

As the tension grips, it reveals larger issues. Tragedies can last for ever, "like blocks of ice which never melt". They bring obsessions, revenge, and a guilt "which never ends, worse in the dark of night, but with you all the time." Cormier captures the vicissitudes of teenage, especially the gaucheries and bewitching beauties of sex. Denny experiences not only "beautiful pink blushes", but the Vox-like eroticism of a telephone voice that "conjured up wild thoughts, its phallic thrall vital to the plot".

Concomitant with the tragic storyline is the hazard of dipping into melodrama. Its avoidance owes much to the economy of the writing in whatever mode, such as the controlled description of the catastrophe. Likewise its immediate aftermath, when pain was preferable to the panic. The text is studded with metaphorical language, but never self consciously.The dialogue feels astonishingly accurate, whether the sweet sorrows of teenage sexuality or the bitterness of the murderous finale.

The best rhymes, said Dryden, keep our ears and minds on the stretch. The same is true of thrillers as flawless as this.

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