Dead honest

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Adele Geras reads accounts of child murder and vampirism

Looking for JJ. By Anne Cassidy. Scholastic pound;12.99.

The Moth Diaries. By Rachel Klein. Faber pound;9.99.

On the face of it, these two books do not have many things in common, but each of them deals with something endlessly fascinating: the havoc girls can cause when they egg one another on in some way. Margaret Atwood in Cat's Eye and Anne Fine in The Tulip Touch have written brilliantly on this topic, and these two novels are notable additions to the literature of girls behaving badly.

Perhaps "badly" doesn't quite cover it. Anne Cassidy's JJ is a child murderer. She neither denies it nor hides it from the reader. Rather, we're taken through the events that have led her to where she is now: living under an assumed identity and unable to make contact with anyone from the various periods in her life.

The book is bleak without being depressing. It's plainly written in JJ's own words and is all the more powerful for that. As we piece together the strands of this young woman's life, the emotional temperature rises and we end up (quite an achievement, this) sympathetic to a murderer and understanding how she came to commit such a crime.

The adult characters are very well drawn. Cassidy is particularly skilled in showing how their behaviour and the way they appear to the children rearranges itself over and over again as though a psychological kaleidoscope were being twisted. The power play between the three young girls at the centre of the story is spot-on, and will be recognised by anyone who has ever been part of a threesome. This book is difficult to put down and would make a great television film.

Cassidy's novel came my way in proof form, so I cannot comment on the cover, but Rachel Klein's book is a most elegant and beautiful hardback.

It's being marketed as a teenage book but one can't help feeling that only the age of the protagonists and the fact that it is set in a girls'

boarding-school in America has prevented it from being published on the adult list. The film rights have already been sold, and with luck this will become what publishers call a crossover book.

This is one of those novels where readers must decide what they think. Is our narrator an obsessed adolescent with an overactive imagination or do we believe that Ernessa, a new girl at the school, is truly a vampire? It's a wonderfully Gothic story, even though it's set in the 1960s, and I adored every word of it. The diary form works well to produce a fevered, haunted, claustrophobic atmosphere and the teenage narrator knows how to manipulate our emotions and place her chills very skilfully. The film could be wonderful; it could be over the top, which would be a shame. My advice is: read this terrific, skilful, fascinating book at once before they've decided on the casting. It's deserves every success.

Adele Geras's novel Other Echoes is published by David Fickling Books this week

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