Girl, interrupted

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
How the Light Gets In

By MJ Hyland

Canongate pound;6.99

Taming the Beast

By Emily Maguire

Serpent's Tail pound;10.99

These novels are both tales of bright but troubled young women from the suburbs of Sydney who self-destruct with varying degrees of adult help. If MJ Hyland's Lou, and Emily Maguire's Sarah met in a smoke-filled bar, they would either bond for life or beat each other up.

How the Light Gets In follows Lou to a well-heeled small town near Chicago on an overseas high school programme for gifted teenagers. Ridiculed by her own chaotic family for loving books, she longs to blend in with her hosts, the Hardings, with their wholesome pursuits, chores rota and casual riches.

But she suffers from insomnia and the Americans' fake intimacy and enforced eye contact leaves her feeling deprived of privacy as well as sleep. When she turns to her familiar props of cigarettes and alcohol, the Hardings are brutal in their rejection.

This compelling and often funny tale of an adolescent who can't be managed according to a host organisation's textbook will draw in young adult readers as well as adults.

It's not clear at the end of the novel how far Lou is architect of her own destruction. In Emily Maguire's first novel, about a 14-year-old girl seduced by her English teacher (between 3pm and 5pm every day), there's no question about who's to blame.

The publisher describes Taming the Beast as "Notes for (sic) a Scandal from the pupil's point of view". The account of how Sarah forms an addiction to abusive sex after her affair with Mr Carr is not entirely from her point of view, although it does offer glimpses inside her head, and a messy place that is. It also reconstructs her teens and early twenties through the eyes of the peers whose mortgages, engagements and babies Sarah at once envies and despises. The school community, so prominent in Lucy Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal, is here reduced to colleagues who helpfully alert Mr Carr by mobile if they need him between 3pm and 5pm.

Sarah's realisation on the very welcome final page that she is free to end the relationship could be the book's qualification for its place in the self-help section, where I found it in a large branch of WH Smith. But I rather think that was a mistake.

Geraldine Brennan's books diary returns next week

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