Girls versus the rest

1st March 1996 at 00:00
GRANNY THE PAG. By Nina Bawden Hamish Hamilton. Pounds 10.99 THE SKY IN SILVER LACE. By Robin Klein Viking. Pounds 9.99

Nina Bawden's tightly-written family drama is a gripping study of children's rights, intolerance and natural justice. Catriona and her eccentric, brilliant grandmother live with their animals and visiting waifs and strays. Their warm, chaotic, loving home is the antithesis of life chez Catriona's parents, a pair of soap stars who farmed out their daughter earlier in their careers and now want her back.

The ensuing legal battle and its emotional fall-out piles on the stress during Catriona's already tough first year at secondary school, where she attracts unwanted attention both from bullies and authority.

Bawden has created a complex heroine who has realistically messy reactions to her difficulties. Her antisocial streak saves her from being too mature and well-adjusted to be true, and balances the hint of preciousness in her authorial interventions ("just because you're writing a book doesn't mean you know everything").

Catriona is terrified of losing her home but astute about how others might see it, especially compared to her parents' sterile "ideal marriage". Granny is Dame Halina Lubirnoska, an eminent psychotherapist ("pag" can be loosely translated as "mover and shaker") and a bit too clever and too odd for the intervening professionals' comfort. Grandmother and granddaughter are only slightly more acceptable than the care-in-the-community outcasts (Dame Halina's former patients) who haunt their house.

Proud of their off-beat existence, Catriona wallows in intellectual superiority over her parents in their shiny new house with no books. At the same time, she craves security and envies her friend Rosie's "traditional" home life and ability to avoid trouble.

Bawden provides food for thought about children's rights and bullying the bully is presented as a human being with private terrors of his own while offering much more than an issue-led novel. Catriona's Dickensian solicitor is magically helpful and Dame Halina is a fairytale wise woman on a motorbike, but otherwise reality rules.

In Australian author Robin Klein's tales of the Melling girls from Wilgawa, a small town in the bush, the magic stays firmly inside the head of Vivienne, the youngest and dreamiest of four sisters.

These subversive Little Women of the late 1940s have to manage without an heroic father theirs is a Gallipoli veteran, but given to getting drunk and disappearing in pursuit of money-losing schemes and without a Jo, because no one character is exceptionally memorable. Raucous Cathy and studious-but-stroppy Heather jostle Vivienne for centre stage, while Grace, the eldest and a more shadowy figure, hides behind her bedroom door. The volumes of connected stories win on their collective energy and their gritty treatment of a poverty of a less genteel variety than Little Women's.

The Sky in Silver Lace sees the Mellings leaving the back o'Bourke for the big city. Their father is off on another doomed enterprise and their mother at the mercy of snooty relatives and exploitative short-term employers. For light relief, the girls swoon over Clark Gable, elbow their way into semi-polite society and show off to visitors from hicksville. The sitcom humour is as sharp as the period detail.

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