Children's literature;Children's Books

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
DANCING THROUGH THE SHADOWS. Theresa Tomlinson. Julia MacRae, pound;9.99

A DIFFERENT LIFE. Lois Keith. Women's Press Livewire, pound;5.99

Pitiless illness has always threatened childhood and we have always witnessed its ugly assaults with horror. We've written about this constantly: Dombey and Son, the Katy books, The Secret Garden and the Australian classic of the 1950s polio epidemic, I Can Jump Puddles. All differ in depth, intention and focus; Jane Eyre distinguishes the ravages of at least three different diseases, while little Paul Dombey fades from something as disturbingly unexplained as many of today's maladies. And what of Christy Brown's writing? And the recent radio drama, Spoonface Steinberg? They are linked by their and our struggle to make bearable the unbearable loss and irrevocable alteration of those we love.

Theresa Tomlinson and Lois Keith have both written novels which belong to this tradition, but must also exist in a culture where illness and treatment are both news and entertainment and where doctors, like the rest of us, may have feet of clay.

Now, individual patients can be known to us by name, face and intimate medical detail. Food poisoning fears, innovative procedures and legal challenges over the rights of patients to receive or refuse medical help are all important news items. Novelists writing about illness in this charged atmosphere require courage. Both these authors have understood the challenge and taken a step back. They have worked small stories which scrupulously reject notoriety.

In Tomlinson's novel, which I liked and read in an evening, the subject is the early diagnosis and successful treatment of the breast cancer which threatens Ellen's Mum. It's the gentle story of an ordinary girl, with a family, a school life and hobbies. She's everybody's early teenage daughter: usually sensible, kind, courageous and inventive. Now she faces the difficult year of her mother's treatment.

The novel intends to be, and is informative, with a nice differentiation between past and present treatment and a clear account of good, contemporary oncological practice. It's a private book, pared down so that most 10-year-olds could read it.

It does lack punch and drama, but I'm sure the author has made this sacrifice knowingly and I'd confidently point it out to any girl, but not, I think, to any boy. This is overwhelmingly a novel about the experience of girls and women, as is Lois Keith's novel about 15-year-old Libby, who has been catastrophically weakened by a viral illness probably contracted through swimming in polluted water.

I suspect that when Keith, now a wheelchair user herself, began the book, her clear intention was "to show them all what it's really like". She's succeeded, but it's hard going for the reader. The book is too long - a brave account has been allowed to ramble and would have benefited so much from better editing.

While Tomlinson's novel deals with disaster averted, this tackles disaster endured. On one level it works, and I would certainly like it in my school library.

It made me cringe over my own insensitivity towards those whose lives have been further restricted, not by illness but by steps, stairs and kerbstones. It provides a spirited critique of medical practice which is more interested in the disease than the patient. It also reinforces the point that our civil rights can, regrettably, depend upon whether we go through life sitting or standing.

A much better novel should have emerged from this writer with this experience and this drive. Authenticity comes from honesty, and neither is in doubt; what is lacking is the disciplined control of a novelist.

Humourless descriptions, verbatim arguments and trivia may weary readers who would then miss the climax: a great showdown with a feeble headteacher who does not want Libby back in his school.

They might then make do with the last few pages in which Libby gets her man, and that would be a shame. Keith's book has invited us to reject the stereotypical, easy answer, so maybe we should just wait for her to have another go.

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