LOVE LESSONS. David Belbin. Scholastic pound;5.99.
Scholastic saves its trickiest issue novels for David Belbin. In Asking For It he focuses on the treatment of rape victims; in his latest work he delivers a stern cautionary tale about the most tired classroom cliche of all - the affair between teacher and pupil. Teachers might not choose it for the school library (and not just because it's too long, with uninspiring characters), but 13-year-old girls will swoop on it.
Belbin has chosen the female pupilmale teacher model. This makes the power imbalance underlying the relationship between Mike and Rachel (15, therefore under age) more obvious and facilitates a parallel plot about Rachel's father, a university lecturer who has affairs with his students.
Subtlety is in short supply throughout, and finally leaps off the balcony during rehearsals for a performance of Romeo and Juliet, when the new English teacher returns Rachel's flirtatious overtures, quickly becoming an energetic lover who also takes her to see Oasis. The book is responsibly packaged to appeal to older teens, but the sexual content is too explicit for the younger readers it will inevitably attract.
The relationship seems more believable as it crumbles under pressure of secrecy, and its effect on the school community rings true (the head is last to find out). At first Mike collects readers' sympathy points - he is weak and stupid, but also isolated and worn out by his first job. But once he has used his power to manipulate Rachel and other pupils, the transition from fanciable male to unsavoury sleazeball is swift but deadly.
The school's retribution is, realistically, limited: Mike loses his job but stays in teaching (Rachel having lied to protect him) and moves on to an attractive sixth-former elsewhere. The message is driven home with a sledgehammer, but perhaps it needs to be.