25th August 2000 at 01:00
TEENAGE. RHINO BOY. By John Brindley. Dolphin pound;4.99. DEEP TROUBLE. By Lynne Markham. Mammoth pound;4.99. THE CUNNING MAN. By Celia Rees. Scholastic pound;5.99.

While numerous young adult novels take as their theme the developing growth of their young protagonists, the growth in question is usually of the metaphorical kind and does not relate specifically to bodily considerations. For John Brindley's hero Ryan Bright, however, the tentative journey to maturity begins with having to cope with something very embarrassingly physical indeed, and it is only as part of maturing that he comes to understand its full symbolic significance. When that understanding dawns, it brings feelings of shame, discomfort and guilt.

The rhinoceros horn which inexplicably sprouts from Ryan's forehead points to an internal poison, the only outlet for which to date has been in his aggressive bullying of fellow pupils or in the sharpness of his exchanges with his mother and sister. As the horn's visibility increases, he develops from victimiser into victim. The most painful aspects of the transition are his enforced new insights into the behaviour of his so-called friends and, more touchingly, into the manipulations of the father whom he has until now barely known.

Brindley brings to the telling of his strongly moral tale a skilful mixture of humour, rawness and high drama, seen at their most impressive in a sequence in a hospital basement in which Danni gives her brother the final push - in more senses than one - towards self-discovery. The overall effect is of an unusual, but psychologically intriguing and artistically satisfying, novel, which in its final sentence has Ryan feeling, justifiably, "very glad to be home".

By coincidence, the final sentence of Lynne Markham's Deep Trouble also sees its young hero, Jimmy Wilson, sowly making his way back home. Here, too, the journey to self-discovery involves a traumatic coming to terms with the consequences of a father's absence. But in this case the absence is merely temporary, necessitated by an unexpected stroke. During his father's stay in hospital, Jimmy, a self-acknow-ledged "wimp", comes to develop a measure of new strength.

Over this same period a whale becomes trapped in a nearby estuary having taken a wrong turning: its destiny and Jimmy's are to be closely linked. The boy recognises in "Deep", as he names the whale, a shared wildness and an urge to make his own way in the world. But these aspirations are, initially, only an ironic commentary on the reality of his bullied existence. By the time events have played themselves out, Jimmy will have come to appreciate the need to be true to himself and, equally important, to his father.

Although Markham deals, in the main, with such serious and sensitive matters as the father-son relationship and the possibility of imminent death, she has also an attractively restrained humour, best seen in the portrayal of Ben, Jimmy's fellow "wimp", and his obsession with race-winning newts. It all amounts to an entertaining and thoughtful novel.

The "cunning man" of Celia Rees's title is a conjurer called Griffiths, an enchanter who can call up storms and wreak havoc on shipping. Finn, her mother and her two brothers encounter him and his wiles when they rent as a holiday home the Salt House, an eerie building echoing with past feuds and skulduggeries. What soon ensues is a series of highly charged confrontations, played out against vividly realised scenes of natural and elemental disturbance. Part horror, part romance, this tale is best taken with a generous pinch of the salt we hear about so much.

Robert Dunbar

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