Home-grown heartaches

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Elaine Williams looks at fiction that explores the complexities of family relationships

Sisterland By Linda Newbery David Fickling Books pound;10.99

Indigo's Star By Hilary McKay Hodder Children's Books pound;10

The More the Merrier By Anne Fine Doubleday pound;10.99

The Rattletrap Trip By Rachel Anderson Oxford University Press pound;4.99

Midnight By Jacqueline Wilson Doubleday pound;10.99

Surprising Joy By Valerie Bloom Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

Families can be our rock or our shifting sand, existing in an infinite number of shapes and sizes in an increasingly fragmented society.

This recent crop of novels which focus on young people forging a path through family life reflect the rich experiences, multi-faceted relationships and difficult choices that are often involved.

Sisterland, ranging across time and continents, is a powerful and compassionate story of an "ordinary" family haunted by dark events in history. Hilly and Zo are teenage sisters; sensible and sensitive Hilly resents the easy good looks and self-absorbed behaviour of Zo . The mutual irritation intensifies when they are forced to share a bedroom to accommodate Heidigran, their German grandmother, who has Alzheimer's disease. Heidigran's failing but distorted memory introduces unexplained elements of her past, which Hilly feels compelled to explore while becoming embroiled in her sister's troubled social life. Linda Newbery creates an outstanding novel of interwoven narratives which explore, with insight and pace, deep issues of racism and genocide, the delicacy of young love and emotional pain, the fear and loneliness of being one of society's minorities. This is one of this year's most compelling "crossover" reads for teenagers and adults.

Indigo's Star by Hilary McKay returns to the quirky and anarchic Casson family, first mentioned in the current Whitbread Children's Book of the Year, Saffy's Angel. Saffy's brother Indigo returns to school after a chronic illness and forms an outsiders' alliance with the enigmatic Tom, an American boy living with his English grandmother. Tom and Indigo are partners in school adversity: constantly in trouble, hassled by their peers, misunderstood by teachers. The novel takes flight as this touching friendship becomes entangled in the Cassons' domestic chaos, and the result is a funny but poignant portrayal of young people coming to terms with separation within their families. The warmth and hilarity of the narrative takes the sting out of the difficult choices which Tom, Indigo and their families have to face. The book is suitable for older primary readers and above.

Anne Fine is at her wittiest in The More the Merrier, a farce that highlights the toxic nature of family get-togethers when it follows the extended Mountfield clan through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Although this is a lighthearted tale which makes an engaging read for key stage 2 pupils and above, the caricatures of the Mountfields encapsulate the astute analyses of classic but contemporary family tensions.

The Rattletrap Trip is another comic novel with an edge, for older primary readers. This story centres on foster-mother Sasparilla, as generous in spirit as in physical bulk, the assortment of children she gathers up, and her doomed plan to load her wayward dependants into an old van and head for an isolated farmhouse to free mind, body and spirit. Sassy might seem irresponsible to some adult critics, but the novel shows how her love and devotion is crucial to the children in her care. Rachel Anderson's insight into care issues makes this a provocative as well as a warm and humorous story.

Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson and Surprising Joy by Valerie Bloom are tales for the over-10s, focusing on the identity crises suffered by children because the truth about their birth parents has been withheld. Midnight introduces Will, whose adolescence is made stormier by the discovery that he has been adopted, and his relationship with Violet, his sister. She has always found Will hard to handle, with his touching affection laced with cruelty, but their bond is sorely tested when Violet makes friends with the exotic and sexy Jasmine. Wilson is assured as always as she creates a gripping narrative out of the challenges of family life.

In Surprising Joy, Valerie Bloom turns to the social and cultural outcome when families are forced to separate across continents. Joy's grandmother in Jamaica has brought her up. She is loving but elderly and frail, and Joy's childhood has been shadowed by anxiety about her. When, at 13, she realises her lifelong ambition to join her mother in England, revelations about her birth history make her feel that she is not the person she thought she was. Valerie Bloom is a successful poet, and this book resonates with rhythmic language. It is also a well-constructed first novel, tightly written, evocative and touching on powerful issues and emotions.

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