Nature takes its course

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Elaine Williams reads novels with animal appeal and moral messages

ONE FOR SORROW TWO FOR JOY. By Clive Woodall. Ziji Publishing in association with Duckworth pound;10.99

DUSK. By Susan Gates. Puffin pound;4.99

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX. By Kate Di Camillo. Walker Books pound;6.99

THE PIG SCROLLS. By Gryllus the Pig (Paul Shipton). Puffin pound;9.99

RARE BEASTS. By Charles Ogden. Simon amp; Schuster pound;6.99

Telling tales through an animal's perception has been a powerful literary device for exposing human frailty and folly from Classical myths onwards. Considering the lusty life of a Golden Ass (Apuleius translated by Robert Graves) or a chanticleer (Chaucer), enjoying the antics of lords of misrule such as Brer Rabbit or Anansi the Spider or, more recently, questioning the consequences of land development through the epic history of a community of Berkshire rabbits (Richard Adams's Watership Down) somehow places human behaviour in sharper relief and calls our stewardship of the Earth into question.

On a more basic level, how animals see the world remains a source of endless wonder and speculation to children and adults who love animals. The wide range of fiction reviewed here draws fully on this rich tradition in a variety of ways.

One for Sorrow Two for Joy is a heroic epic from a first-time novelist. Clive Woodall has turned a bedtime story, told to his own children as they grew up, into a resonant commentary on the effects industry can have on the natural order. In an increasingly urban environment scavengers such as magpies thrive and in this story their dominance takes an evil direction.

Birddom is a kingdom where magpies rule through genocide. Blackbirds and sparrows have been exterminated; magpies have replaced the pigeon in the city and the starling in the garden; small birds fight for survival and the robin leads the struggle. The story of the little guys with right on their side fighting the wicked big guys certainly has Disney appeal, and the film rights have been sold. But this is a savage as well as a sentimental tale, threaded with stark and violent acts, including rape. The savagery is part of its strength - let's hope Disney refrains from the usual sugar coating - but the content indicates a readership of 11-plus. For a first novel this an assured performance with dynamic narrative and structure, raising pressing environmental issues.

Dusk, a novel for young teenagers, is a chilling contemporary account of genetic engineering in which human and hawk genes have been combined in government laboratory experiments to create Dusk, part-girl, part-raptor. When a fire is started in the lab, Dusk escapes to a nearby town along with the super-rats which have also been genetically engineered, and the lab guard dogs. The town is evacuated and sealed off and they are left to their fate. An uneasy truce develops between Dusk, Wolf and General Rat until a boy called Jem breaks through the army barriers.

Susan Gates is well known for witty, playful stories for younger readers, but Dusk shows her versatility as a writer. This novel has punch and power. It tackles a major ethical issue with impressive creative energy and is incisive in its characterisation and notation of contemporary society. Dark with despair but infused with tenderness, it deserves to become an acclaimed work of teenage fiction.

The Tale of Despereaux, a beautifully light, lyrical narrative about a mouse born with unusually large ears, will appeal to fluent readers of eight and above. The many threads of this story - the way society demands conformity; the unforetold consequences of actions and events; the effects of poverty and cruelty - are woven so nimbly that the overall effect shimmers with romantic humour.

Kate Di Camillo, who won a Newbery Honor (a major American literary award) for Because of Winn-Dixie, a story about the scruffiest and wisest of dogs, uses traditional structures of myth and fairy tale and simple, evocative language to make penetrating observations about human nature. Very clever and very memorable.

Finally, two funny stories for nine-year-olds and above. The Pig Scrolls also uses a canny classical device - a story told by a human who has been turned into an animal - to create a rollicking uproarious adventure filtered through the narrative landscape of ancient Greece. Gryllus, once a follower of Odysseus and now an idle pig with a wicked tongue, is an unlikely hero and saviour of the world, but he has a genius for withering one-liners. His unsavoury habits will no doubt have copious boy appeal.

Rare Beasts is one of a series about Edgar and Ellen, twins from hell. Here they steal the pets in a neighbouring town and disguise them as exotic beasts for a money-making show. Their appetite for misrule knows no bounds and their unsentimental approach to much-loved domestic animals is a continuous source of sharp wit. Charles Ogden's lively prose maintains pace and humour in this story of the naughtiest losers in town.

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