My life as a rat child

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
SWITCHERS. By Kate Thompson. Bodley Head Pounds 9.99

The strangest thing in Kate Thompson's first fantasy novel for young people is not the extraordinary secret powers of Tess and Kevin, the two teenagers at the centre of this often moving tale, but the fact that this book can contain both the finely written story of the growing relationship between two lonely people and a poorly written story of their attempt to save the world from giant freezing jellyfish, the krools. I came away from the book feeling mildly schizophrenic.

Tess has a marvellous and, at times frightening, secret - she is a Switcher who can shape-shift into animal form at will. When a strange, homeless, youth reveals that he knows what she is, she is trapped into an alliance with him that, over time, will become the most intense and loving relationship she has. Like her, Kevin can switch.

As Tess follows her new acquaintance into his preferred world among the rats which inhabit the sewers and drains beneath the city of Dublin, Kate Thompson writes with a marvellous and magical ease of prejudice overcome and of the very real rough comfort of belonging to a streetwise, outcast, unjudgmental gang. The rats speak a kind of mental, tribal gutter slang which is inventive, amusing and often very moving.

Children will enjoy a sense of exhilarating freedom in the story of Kevin and Tess as they change from owls, to cats, to albatrosses, dolphins and more, just as Wart's education among beasts is, for many, the most memorable section of The Sword in The Stone by T H White. If the author had had the courage to explore Kevin and Tess's relationship fully in the poignant knowledge that the power to switch is lost at 15, this could have been a most powerful novel.

However, the sense of heightened reality which surrounds the main characters fails entirely when they are made to encounter characters in the "real" world. From the silliness of the cartoon Little Old Woman to the unfunny stupidity of the President and his advisers, there appears to be a failure of nerve that shows in the quality of the writing. Which is a shame.

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