23rd February 2001 at 00:00
THE PAPER BAG BABY. By Ruth Thomas. Hutchinson pound;10.99. THE LEAP. By Jonathan Stroud. Red Fox Definitions pound;4.99. IN FLAME. By Gaye Hicyilmaz. Faber pound;4.99. CHASING FACES. By Pamela Scobie. Oxford University Press pound;6.99 Mothers don't come off well in this batch. In The Paper Bag Baby, Alice's mother is too absorbed by her baby son to notice that Alice, besides being bullied at school, is struggling with moral and practical dilemmas.

Edward, a Year 6 classmate, finds a baby abandoned under a park bench and concocts a plan to sell it to a childless couple, recruiting Alice to help; she conceals the baby in her playhouse until an adult neighbour hears him crying.

The reader thinks the game will be up, but Ruth Thomas springs a surprise: the neighbour, desperate for a baby, takes off with the child to a seaside caravan. Secrets and rumours spread, and eventually the real mother - a guilt-stricken adolescent - contacts the police.

Narrative viewpoint shifts from the ambitious but thoughtless Edward to the more sensitive Alice, whose emerging maternal instinct persuades her to co-operate with Edward against her better judgment. Issues of self-worth and responsibility for others are explored, and the reader will readily engage with Alice.

Adult characterisation, though, is thin; Alice's mother's "Ho, hum" and her father's "HAW HAW HAW!" quickly become irritating. And why do fictional bullies so often have "cronies" rather than friends?

In The Leap, Charlie's mother, described by a psychologist as "neither diplomatic nor particularly sensitive", remains unaware of the trauma Charlie endures after witnessing the drowning of a friend, Max, in a mill-pool. It's up to brother James, whose first-person narrative alternates with Charlie's, to save his younger sister when fantasy begins to threaten her life.

At first, Charlie's dreams seem to be a symbolic working-through of shock and loss. But, gradually, the world she inhabits at night - peopled by silvery women, a spirit guide and a Max who remains just out of reach - takes over her waking hours.

Much of this is vividly told, but the novel needs a stronger location in reality to make us engage with Charlie's plight. "I mean, how old as she?" James asks at one stage, and indeed the novel is so vague on this point that the reader cannot answer; the maturity of Charlie's thoughts, and the writing in her diary, are at odds with her behaviour and relationship with Max.

Loss is also at the heart of Gaye Hicyilmaz's teenage novel In Flame. The death of Helen's brother Tom, seven years previously, has scarred the family, and a move to the south Wales coast brings them into contact with another bereaved family, the Owens, with whom there are past and present links.

Helen's growing sexuality becomes apparent to her parents and to Helen herself when both mother and daughter become attracted to Christian Owens. With Helen's sexual awareness comes a realisation that the Owens family has secrets to hide, and that both teenage children - embittered Samantha and peculiar, introverted Wiffy - have been harmed. Disturbingly, their problems seem to have been known to the community, including Helen's grandmother, a concentration-camp survivor who cannot find sympathy for victims of another kind of cruelty.

This is a compelling, obliquely written novel that keeps questions unanswered until the very end, and in which Helen's memories of her adored brother are powerfully contrasted with the squalid, manipulative relationships she sees from an adolescent perspective.

In Chasing Faces, Milly blames her mother for her father's defection with a 19-year-old girl. Relationships between teenage girls and grandmothers are fruitful for novelists, and here Pamela Scobie alternates the two stories - Milly's, in the present, and grandmother Emmy's, moving from the 1920s to wartime - very effectively.

Each in her own way has rejected her mother, and the plot is structured around a near-disastrous pilgrimage to a north-eastern seaside resort in an attempt to find Emmy's lost mental picture of her mother.

Through sharing her grandmother's memories, Milly reassesses her relationship with her own mother. There is much here for the thoughtful reader about changing roles for girls. Scobie's writing is vivid and stylish, particularly when evoking the tastes, smells, clothes and privations of daily life in the past.


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