Facing up to life's challenges

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Nicholas Tucker finds a collection of fiction that takes brave steps into harrowing territory

The Road of Bones

By Anne Fine

Doubleday pound;10.99

The Fourth Horseman

By Kate Thompson

Bodley Head pound;10.99

Sara's Face

By Melvin Burgess

Andersen Press pound;9.99

Calling the Shots

By Lesley Howarth

Oxford University Press pound;5.99 pbk

The Last Taboo

By Bali Rai

Corgi pound;5.99 pbk

Anne Fine is a stand-alone author; she eschews serial stories. Nothing she writes can ever be predicted from what has come before, and this continues to be true with The Road of Bones. It takes its title from the proverb: For some, the crystal stair! For others, just a road of bones. This may or may not be original, given Fine's previous form in making up would-be Russian proverbs in her marvellous novel The Granny Project.

Yet it certainly sums up this grim story about Yuri, a child whose life under Stalin at his most murderous is thinly fictionalised, but horribly convincing. Somehow surviving imprisonment, starvation, beatings and the cold, Yuri just makes it to the last page, still intact in body, but by now adrift in his soul. Unlike the stoic hero of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he finally takes on the character of his oppressors, ready to do his worst in his turn. This is Fine's bleakest novel so far; an impressive although sometimes uncomfortable achievement.

Kate Thompson keeps winning literary awards (most recently the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize), and The Fourth Horseman returns to her favourite theme of scientists who insist on going into areas better left alone. A demented father works on a virus that could wipe out the human race, while his children wonder whether to blow the whistle, spurred on by unconvincing visitations from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Such is the force of Thompson's writing that readers find themselves dragged along in her wake, at one stage through a lengthy and, for the uninitiated, probably baffling game of cricket. Even with some of the plot's obvious flaws, plus too many unnecessary cliffhangers, this is still powerful stuff, well worth reading.

More horror is at hand in Melvin Burgess's Sara's Face, a novel with strong contemporary overtones. Teenage Sara is so deeply dissatisfied with her body image that she contemplates a face transplant. Trapped in an abusive relationship with a sinister multimillionaire pop star who has already had unsuccessful work done on his face (remind you of anyone?), Sara seems curiously unable to escape her ghastly fate. She is given no help by her author, who takes his customary glee in forcing readers, as well as characters, into uncomfortable situations. Yet there is far more going on than general ghoulishness, leaving much to think about at the end of an otherwise queasy reading experience.

Lesley Howarth considers another type of abuse in Calling the Shots, about a disintegrating family chosen to star in a reality TV show. Howarth is expert in the secret life of suburbia and her acute observations are a pleasure to read. In many ways she has the talent to inherit the mantle of the late Jan Mark, another writer at her best when her fiction is at its most understated. Calling the Shots isn't entirely successful, making an unconvincing case for modern British children as generally oppressed beings. Moving at some points, it succumbs to melodrama or over-the-top humour at others. But there is still much to enjoy and think about. It also has that rarity in teenage fiction - a happy ending.

Bali Rai's The Last Taboo takes on the enmity that sometimes exists between modern urban youths of Asian and Caribbean extraction, or as this novel puts it, the bhangra-muffins and the kalahs. When Simran and Tyrone fall for each other, ugly forces are unleashed in a Leicester community. Of Asian origin himself, Rai attacks, in particular, what he portrays as Punjabi exclusiveness and intolerance. He conveys his message largely through street-talk so authentic it almost needs a running translation.

Simran comes from a progressive family, as does Tyrone, and Rai's descriptions of their contented domestic lives border on the saccharine.

But as a seemingly inevitable bloody climax approaches, occasional irritations with language or plot give way to total involvement with a story that comes over as all too realistic. This is brave, committed writing, not always subtle but passionate; it deserves a large audience.

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