Compromised identities

16th January 2004 at 00:00
BLACK MIRROR. By Nancy Werlin. Collins Flamingo pound;5.99

DEEP SECRET. By Berlie Doherty. Puffin pound;12.99

AMERICA IS ME. By E R Franks. Simon amp; Schuster pound;5.99

I is Someone Else. By Patrick Cooper. Andersen Press pound;5.99

FAT BOY SWIM. By Catherine Forde. Egmont pound;4.99

Linda Newbery reviews novels for the over-11s that explore some troubling features of their physical and mental landscapes

The first two of these books features bereaved sisters, each one suffering the loss of a stable, independent identity. In Black Mirror, an American rites-of-passage novel with a film noir flavour, Frances is a loner at her privileged high school. After the death of her brother Daniel from a heroin overdose, she is persuaded to join Unity, the school's charitable organisation. But she soon discovers that the "charity" is a front for a drugs ring which preys on ever-younger children. Frances retreats into herself and does not know who to trust. There's surprise after surprise for the reader, but above all the sense of Frances's increasing self-acceptance as she learns not to rely on the values of others.

Loss of identity is particularly acute in Berlie Doherty's Deep Secret.

When Grace drowns, her identical twin Madeleine takes her name - even their mother isn't aware of the deception.

This compelling and unusual story depicts the inhabitants of a Derbyshire village threatened by the imminent flooding of their valley for a reservoir. Doherty skilfully involves us in several lives: besides Madeleine, there is Ben, a newly married pig farmer whose land and livelihood are to be taken from him; Aunt Susan, who has memories of a violent dam-breach in her youth; Seth, the blind carpenter; Colin, the vicar's son, who is guiltily intrigued by the invading labourers.

The writing is beautifully evocative of all that will be lost - Grace's memorial window, bluebell woods, ancient tracks, even the stream where Madeleine believes her sister's spirit lingers.

Frequent switches of viewpoint in a novel can be irritating, but not when handled with such deftness. Over a period of several years, Deep Secret depicts a community forced to move into modernity. For some this is an insurmountable tragedy, for others an opportunity. This is a novel to lose yourself in.

The next two titles include - quite explicitly - sexual abuse of boys by older men. As a result, both main characters feel guilty, furtive and confused about their sexuality. For Patrick Cooper's Stephen, escape takes the form of a journey east on the "hippy trail" of the 1960s, in pursuit of his missing brother; while ERFranks's America, a boy confined to a mental hospital, imagines himself on the slopes of Everest. A deeply troubled, aggressive adolescent, he believes himself to be lost and worthless.

"Shit" is the most frequent word in the book, but as America's friend Liza points out when they're doing some therapeutic gardening, "The more shit things get, the better they come out". Franks makes admirable use of her background in clinical psychology: not letting adult experience intrude into the story, but giving her character a distinctive and authentic voice.

I is Someone Else cries out for better editing. The first third of the story feels as if it is still warming up, as Stephen travels from a Channel port to "a cake shop in Vienna" with no evocation of place or landscape. Only when he reaches Istanbul does the author - drawing on memories of his own journey east - warm to his setting. Stephen's brother, when tracked down, offers little support, but after taking the drastic step of giving away his possessions and throwing his passport into the Ganges, Stephen is helped to return home, and finds the courage to tell his father about Mr Wortle, his seducer.

Fat Boy Swim, set in Glasgow, deals with bullying of a very spiteful kind, but is saved from bleakness by its pervasive humour. Jimmy, extremely overweight, consoles himself with sessions of binge eating, and is indulged by his mother. Until he comes up against swimming coach GI Joe (an off-duty priest), he has no serious incentive to change.

Everything is larger than life here. Already an ace cook, Jimmy transforms himself into a competitive swimmer, acquires a devoted girlfriend and discovers some startling truths about his family. Ends are rather too neatly tied, but this is a witty and hugely enjoyable read for the over-11s.

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