5th May 2000 at 01:00
THE GIRL IN RED. By Gaye Hicyilmaz. Orion Dolphin pound;4.99.

This story of an adolescent boy's love for a Romanian gypsy girl who turns his life and community upside down is shockingly timely. As well as being a poignant tale of a young person's yearning for the unattainable, it's about people caught up in race hatred.

Frankie is an engaging if unlovely boy, living with his hairdresser mum, June, on the dire Poet's Rise estate, somewhere on the Kent coast. They chug along more or less contentedly - less, probably, rather than more.

June has had a string of boyfriends, the latest being Ian, whose middle-class sensibilities (he reads the Guardian) set Frankie's teeth on edge.

So does Ian's daughter, Lucy, a simpering little thing who is drawn to June's edgy but heart-of-mousse character. And to Frankie.

Everything changes when gypsies move into the area. Emilia joins Frankie's class and has a magnetic effect on everyone around her, not least Frankie. The disenfranchised of Poet's Rise react as some of the good burghers of real-life Kent did in the events that inspired the book - with suspicion, hatred and selfishness. And they are led n their campaign by none other than June, who becomes a hero of the racist fraternity by telling a packed meeting at the Town Hall, "This isn't about race, it's about space."

Frankie is repulsed by his mother and so is Ian, who withdraws, making June even more miserable. Frankie feels more and more enraptured by the enticing Emilia, who is taken in by the liberal school librarian after leaving her own family, who are afraid of her mixing with English friends.

It's all a sorry state of affairs, culminating in an anti-gypsy fracas outside the school gates on the night of a charity dance for asylum seekers.

Tensions erupt after an old woman on the estate is found dead and the blame is laid on gypsy intruders. There is no happy ending in this moving but pessimistic novel - Emilia runs away, her family disappears and Poet's Rise is left to stew in its own juice. Frankie has lost Emilia; he no longer loves his mother; his mother no longer has a lover. Hicyilmaz has created a bleak and harrowing world.

If the future lies with Frankie and the few other voices of sanity around him, good luck to them. They'll need it.


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