Living in an alien world

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Deborah Maby reads children's tales of suspense and swashbuckling adventure. Henry has the sort of mother who bakes bread and is always there to take an interest in her children. The trouble is, Henry, the awkward, shy hero of Watching the Watcher by Gaye Hicyilmaz (Faber and Faber, Pounds 9.99) is neither interesting nor interested, rather he is mind-numbingly bored - with himself, his family, his life. He has a nasty suspicion that a mother like Ali Draper, who has wrinkles, paints her nails and listens to nasty rock music, would be better than one who always has his tea ready.

Salvation comes in the form of an invitation from his great-uncle, a recluse who keeps a private zoo in the depths of the countryside. Henry finds himself thrown into an alien world that could not be further removed from the one of his parents' home with pretty, flowery halls and scones for tea.

This is an adventure story, but one complicated by its unpredictability and by Henry's feelings, which are described in almost lurid detail. Boredom is felt as "some pressing, syrupy ache over his nose and forehead", and his stomach "clenches like a fist". We expect Henry's great-uncle to be a genial eccentric but instead he is harsh and unpleasant and is hiding a very nasty secret in the woods. When Henry is dog-tired, we expect, almost need, him to sleep like a log but instead he is wakeful and restless and we find ourselves yawning with sympathy. It is a compelling story, rich in everything except humour.

Geraldine McCaughrean's Plundering Paradise (OUP, Pounds 5.99), by contrast, is seething with dry, caustic wit. Like Henry, Nathan Gull has a problem with his parents - they have died at a very inopportune moment, leaving him and his sister Maude homeless and destitute. This is England in 1717 and paupers are not kindly dealt with. But Nathan's childhood dreams are fulfilled when they are taken off on a pirate ship to Madagascar, where they come into their own, basking in the warmth of its people, which contrasts sharply with the cruel savagery of their fellow countrymen. Pale Maude and puny Nathan blossom amid the cyclones and ancestor-worship, and the whole is told with a swashbuckling bravado that leaves you laughing and breathless.

Leaping forward a couple of centuries but equally full of droll humour and lip-biting suspense comes Joan Aiken's The Cockatrice Boys (Gollancz, Pounds 10.99). Set in the future, it more readily evokes the past with its cheekie chappies, its steam puddings and its Dunkirk spirit. Britain has been invaded by a race of horrible monsters, the population has shrunk and the countryside is ravaged. Enter the Cockatrice Corps, who fight their way north aboard a wind-powered train in a last-ditch attempt to save the country.

This is a funny and fantastical tale, and its environmental message makes its reissue especially apt. First published in 1966, it is surprisingly prescient: the monsters have found their way in, it seems, through a hole in the ozone layer, created by "fumes . . . heat . . . all these products of a more comfortable life". Britain alone has been affected, providing a weak point through which to let the beasts in, leaving the rest of Europe untouched. Let us hope that our own monsters are not waiting in the wings.

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