Refugees and runaways;Reviews;Children's books

12th February 1999 at 00:00
SMILING FOR STRANGERS. By Annie Campling. Orion Dolphin. pound;4.50. SHADOWS. By Tim Bowler. Oxford. pound;5.99. OFF THE ROAD. By Nina Bawden. Hamish Hamilton. pound;l0.99.

Annie Campling is on familiar territory in her second novel, the tale of Bosnian refugee Nina's flight to England and the difficulties she faces on reaching "safety". Campling also writes as Gaye Hicyilmaz and has often explored the predicaments of those forced to adjust to a new life as second-class citizens.

The story of Nina is shorter, more intense and more open-ended than her previous books, and is written in the knowledge that similar dramas are unfolding for many displaced young people. But there is nothing worthy about Smiling for Strangers: young teenagers will be gripped by the story and will empathise with Nina's growing alienation and bitterness, rather than pressing on out of a sense of duty to "find out about Bosnia" - although they will certainly be led to consider the mixed motives of Nina's rescuers.

In the opening chapters, Nina is hiding out with her grandfather at their mountain holiday home. Her parents have been killed in Sarajevo and she comforts herself with memorabilia as the food runs out and the snipers descend. The author paints a clear picture of the well-heeled family life that has been lost.

When her grandfather is shot, Nina stows away on an aid convoy and heads for a Sussex address on an old family letter. Campling subtly exposes the pressures that increase once she is out of immediate danger: the strain of deciding who to trust and of having to be permanently ingratiating and grateful is enormous.

The plot is slim once the momentum of real events is taken away, but this fragment of family history is tough enough to hold the tale together.

Shadows, the new novel by Carnegie Medal winner Tim Bowler, peeps behind the safe middle-class English front doors that remain closed to Nina. It shares ingredients with his bleak first novel, Midget - an appalling family situation, well-meaning onlookers who fail to provide a safety net and an atmos-phere of internalised suffering.

Jamie is a schoolboy squash champion who is being driven mercilessly by his coach - his father Ron, a sadistic control freak who beats him when he loses. His mother has also been beaten into submission and his headteacher is his father's best friend. Jamie has to organise his own survival, and his relationship with a runaway pregnant girl helps him summon the determin-ation that deserts him on court. The story swiftly shifts from family drama to thriller with the pace of a squash final.

But something is lacking in Bowler's small-town landscape - perhaps the absence of a social layer in between the compliant circle at the squash club and the wider world represented by thugs and their victims. There's no sign of the nosey neighbours or talkative teachers that thrive in towns like "Ashington" and the best friend's parents and the gym manager seem to have teetered on the brink of asking questions for too long.

These holes in the fictional ozone layer make it hard to accept a teenager giving birth under a motorway bridge or a mother incapable over years of intervening to save her son, let alone Jamie's midnight excursions with a Thermos and a packet of sandwiches. Ron doesn't seem the sort of chap who sleeps soundly - at least he doesn't deserve to.

More runaways in Off the Road, which offers dystopian fantasy rather than social realism, but rings true and has a startling twist at the end.

It's set in the near future. There's a big wall where Offa's Dyke should be, with a dangerous wilderness on one side and a sanitised, well-policed, over-populated sanctuary on the other. The price of safety is a system of "wastage" for senior citizens.

When Tom's grandfather escapes on the way to the Nostalgia Park, Tom follows him to a wilderness settlement where pre-Wall values, including respect for elders, prevail. As in her last excellent novel for teenagers, Granny the Pag, Nina Bawden skilfully explores relationships between generations.

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