Dreams meet gritty realism;Children's books

5th March 1999 at 00:00
ANTONIO S AND THE MYSTERY OF THEODORE GUZMAN. By Odo Hirsch. Allen and Unwin pound;4.99.

WALKING THE MAZE. By Margret Shaw. Oxford University Press pound;5.99.

STONES IN WATER. By Donna Jo Napoli. Oxford University Press pound;5.99.

The ancient family seat with its overgrown acres, secret passages and history holding the brickwork in place looms over English children's fiction to such an extent that the Royal Institute of British Architectects has enough material for its current exhibition about houses in children's books.

A live performance and its associated thrills and spills is another way of generating fictional tension and these first two novels combine a contemporary "let's put the show on right here" spirit with a timeless setting. Odo Hirsch's flamboyant tale (his first book for children) comes from Australia, where it is an award-winner.

The rambling mansion where Antonio lives with a motley crew of eccentrics could be anywhere, but feels North European Gothic with its octagonal alchemist's chamber, which holds the solution to the mystery in the title. Mr Guzman is a retired actor who helps Antonio and his unpromising cast discover the excitement of improvised theatre. Like the production, the story gets off to a slow start but gathers pace and deserves its applause.

This book may appeal to children who like J K Rowling's Harry Potter, but there's no magic involved. Antonio's father is an escapologist, not a wizard, and the moral is that you have to generate your own special effects.

Margret Shaw's novel Walking the Maze is in the English Tom's Midnight Garden tradition, but it's a painting rather than the real des res that pulls the daydreaming heroine, Annice, into the world of the Wolsingtons of Caffelmeade with their symbolic names, their hedged maze and their collection of rare plants, brought back from foreign parts by intrepid ancestors.

The Wolsington storyline, fuelled by the vintage handbook for naturalists that Annice is reading, is only one element in a complex novel that struggles to get out of the maze. Annice is a classic character study of a young adolescent ripe for a fantasy life - clever, solitary, bookish, charismatic, with self-absorbed parents. She's also a compulsive liar and the adults around her believe that too much reading has addled her brain, although there's little evidence for this.

Besides the world in her head, there's the school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which could bring her closer to her father and a potential boyfriend (an anti-daydreaming scientist). The daydream narrative is much more absorbing than the contemporary scenes, especially the school setting where the fictional fairy dust fails to settle. The author is an education and training consultant and perhaps could not resist demonstrating the satisfactory and unsatisfactory Shakespeare lessons or offering a sample of staffroom repartee (something which must be more entertaining in a child's imagination). She stops short of delivering an outline policy for gifted children.

Annice's story has instant appeal (mostly for girls with a streak of Annice in them) but is left floundering in the undergrowth.

Stones in Water, first published in the United States, is a gripping tale of Nazi persecution based on a true story. These children are jerked rudely out of the world of the imagination. In the first heartbreaking chapter, two young Venetians, Roberto and Samuele, are rounded up for forced labour with the rest of the audience as they watch a forbidden Western at the cinema. Samuele is a Jew and relies on Roberto to save him from much worse treatment. There are no narrative byways or flights of fantasy here, just the power of a story in which things can only get worse, and the afterglow that comes from the author's portrayal of good triumphing in the bleakest circumstances.

Geraldine Brennan

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