First novels

14th July 2000 at 01:00
SONGQUEST. By Katherine Roberts. Element Children's Books pound;10.99. CONTROL-SHIFT. By Nick Manns. Hodder Signature pound;4.99. THE MEMORY PRISONER. By Thomas Bloor. Hodder Children's Books pound;3.99.

The joy of writing fantasy is surely the opportunity to originate, to breach frontiers, create strange new worlds and boldly go where no writer has gone before.

Perversely, the fantasy-theme-park school of fiction is developing its own conventions, as restrictive in their way as the legendary rules imposed upon Mills and Boon authors: the map, the glossary, the randomly peculiar names, the special powers and the atavistic device of ramming two nouns together to make a new one, something the English left off doing when we left off being Anglo-Saxons.

John Steinbeck had a word for this authorial embroidery that intervenes between reader and story - hooptedoodle. A firm editorial hand could have pruned a certain amount of the hooptedoodle that encumbers the strikingly original ideas in Katherine Roberts' Songquest, winner of the first Branford Boase Award. Said quest is not, in fact, a quest at all, but an undercover operation in which the anonymity of the protagonists is severely compromised by their habit of dyeing their hair blue, for not entirely convincing reasons.

These are the Singers, island dwellers who can control human behaviour, and communicate over distance, by means of Songs and, unfortunately, Hums (as in "The more it snows, tiddly-pom...?").

Underlying all this is a powerful debate on the treatment of sentient creatures - can the suffering inflicted on them ever be justified by human need? Not a quest but a sound ethical question, unflinchingly addressed.

Control-Shift by Nick Manns tells of a family who move into an old dark house, once owned and used by the army for sinister purposes. Father, working on the computer programs of a state-of-the-art fighter plane is criminally careless in bringing his work home. Fifteen-year-old Graham, the narrator, investigates localhistory and begins to find parallels between his father's work and past events. His little sister communicates with a ghost.

The theme of the novel, that designers of weaponry are at least as culpable as those who use it, is a pertinent one, but it gets mislaid among more hooptedoodle, clues that may or may not be red herrings, portents that ultimately fail to portend and the confusing continuity dislocations of a narrative that appears to have been edited on, or possibly by, a computer.

If Royston Vasey (the creepy town in the League of Gentlemen's cult TV and radio series) had had a public library it might have resembled the one in Thomas Bloor's The Memory Prisoner, which has won this year's Kathleen Fidler Award for new writers.

It begins baldly: "Maddie had not left the house for 13 years. Not once. Not since she visited the public library with her grandad. The day after their visit, the library shut and never reopened." Since then the Towers Library has malignantly absorbed the apparatus of local government, the social services and the post office.

In this godawful town of Pridebridge, Maddie's doctor is unhealthier than his patients, her mother is a dithering wreck with a profound terror of wardrobes and her little brother, Keith, is inexplicably withdrawn from school and apprenticed to Lexeter, the megalomaniac librarian.

Massively overweight, Maddie sits in her bedroom watching the streetlight opposite, until one day events outside lever her into the open and all the apparently disparate parts of the puzzle, including the title, slide into place.

Bloor never wastes a word communicating his nightmare, contriving all at once to be moving, alarming and funny. It takes a while to adjust to the extreme oddity of this short novel as there is nothing to compare it with. Sooner or later someone is going to mention Kafka, but I will eschew the K word except to remark that what most people forget about Kafka is his lethal matter-of-factness.

JAN MARK


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