Friends and neighbours

7th July 1995 at 01:00
THE ASHTON AFFAIR. By Ann Thwaite. Scholastic Pounds 6.99. 0 590 54190 0. TWICE TIMES DANGER. By Enid Richemont. Walker Books Pounds 8.99. 0 7445 2484 9. Age range 9 - 14

Ann Thwaite's The Ashton Affair is a reminder that a child's view of the adult world is very much a keyhole view. When 11-year-old Jan Lomax becomes worried about her mum's relationship with Piers Morley, the rich heir to the local grand house in her native Norfolk village, her attempts to piece together a complete picture of her parents' emotional lives are as awkward as trying to understand a pub from a collection of beermats.

Jan's best friend is Tim Fisher, the son of a local shopkeeper, and together they pick blackberries, gather watercress, and leave trails for each other in the woods with tied grass or bent hogweed. This is an idealised and warming view of childhood in the country, as cosy as the map at the front of the book. Although Jan's innocence cannot last much longer, Ann Thwaite imagines the mindset of her 11-year-old with precision. Jan is still someone who can enjoy making a list of melodramatic rules for The Maxerley Club, and revel in the solemnity of the password: "Maxerleys for ever".

At the same time Jan has been watching Coronation Street for years, and feels well versed in adult woes. She observes her mother meeting Piers in the woods in the evening, and she climbs the wisteria growing up the walls of the grand house to peer at them through the library window. Jan knows enough about adult emotional waywardness to fear that her family is threatened if her mother is having an affair with the lonely Piers in his echoing mansion, but not enough to imagine how a parent might pursue a more chaste relationship outside the family. As a young chorister in the local church, she worries over biblical texts commanding one to love one's neighbour but refrain from adultery in the process. Her father is a pub, telly and darts man who might, she fears, allow the family to disintegrate out of sheer affable carelessness.

The frustration for the reader in this sensitive novel is that the point of view remains piecemeal. Even the adult Jan narrating the story in one long flashback 20 years after the events claims not to understand what really went on. This lack of definite resolution is true to life, but leaves the novel feeling slighter than it could: an account of childhood anxiety when nothing untoward may have happened.

Where the parents in Anne Thwaite's novel are elusively mysterious and complex, those in Enid Richemont's Twice Times Danger are a healthy well adjusted bunch, with the richest of them, Liz, seemingly about to provide jobs for the financially insecure parents of her daughter's two friends. But these parents are merely the background characters in a thriller about the jealousies of friendship.

Becca and Daisie are best friends, both loyal to their native Cornwall and contemptuous of tourists, but when Daisie discovers she has a physical double in the privileged Perdita, as much like her in appearance as an identical twin, Becca feels excluded. Daisie and Perdita delight in swapping clothes and identities. Daisie goes off with Perdita's au pair; Perdita spends time as an undetected imposter with Daisie's parents, who wonder why their daughter is affecting a middle-class accent.

Becca has reason to feel taken for granted as the two look-alikes increasingly assume she will lie and cover up for them in their subterfuge. Their delight in their closeness is a form of delight in themselves; their identical appearance becomes a device which exposes the selfishness at the heart of friendship.

It is also a device which leads to an intriguing thriller. Becca rediscovers her true feelings for Daisie when her friend disappears, abducted in mistake for Perdita, whose mother heads a chain of fashion shops and is being targeted by business opponents. The plotting towards the end is tight, even if it hinges in the usual Secret Seven style silliness of two 11-year-olds setting out to trap serious villains on their own. Fortunately they quickly get out of their depth and credibility is not stretched too much as the violence becomes something only the adults can handle. This is a warm-hearted, unambiguous and unambitious thriller well judged for the older juniorearly secondary level.

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