Relationships growing apart

10th October 1997 at 01:00
THE DROWNING POOL. By Will Gatti. Puffin Pounds 4.99.

WHERE THE WHALES SING. By Victor Kelleher. Illustrated by Vivienne Goodman. Puffin Pounds 3.99.

THE IRON WAY. By Gillian Cross. Oxford University Press Pounds 5.99.

THE SEA SERPENT. By Frankie Calvert. Oxford University Press Pounds 5. 99.

That experience of strangeness and dislocation which inexplicably flourishes within familiar settings, is very much part of our maturing experience.

This is the time, at the end of our childhood, when we secretly wonder how we, with our vivid individuality, ever ended up in family, cultural or even co-incidental relationships with these strange people around us, our siblings, parents and teachers, who take life in their stride and expect us to do the same. We are amazed that they fail to appreciate that our footprints will not look like theirs.

This perception of irrelation unites four novels and their young protagonists, three of whom also share sibling problems.

Kate, in The Drowning Pool, is 10. Her mother has taken her to a new school and home. In this difficult terrain, which will be wonderfully familiar to many readers, Kate's steps are guided by two old bad habits: an overdependence on a toy rabbit and her guilt over the accidental death of her younger brother. Neither is any help at all.

Gatti's depiction of the difficulties of children starting again is very good indeed: "If you try to be funny, you're a show-off; if you don't you're boring". Caught in this trap and alienated from her mother not by textbook wickedness, but by misunderstandings and genuine differences of view, Kate is drawn to the outer edges of experience: to the boy in desperate family trouble, the displaced travellers, the paranoid elderly woman and the forbidden territory of Old Wood.

I followed her growth from a poser who "believes in ghosts and ballet", to the future owner of something very real, with enjoyment.

This was mystery and menace confronted and disarmed.

The Australian author, Victor Kelleher and illustrator Vivienne Goodman have done something very different. They explore the limits of explanation and how we navigate in the flux of the known and unknown. A storm erupts beyond Sydney Harbour and leaves Claire alone on her father's drifting yacht after he has fallen overboard. This trip should have been her chance to witness the migration of the hump-backed whales; by page 2, it has already finished in disaster.

Yet by the end, and it's only 61 pages, younger readers have been offered an extraordinary experience that recalls the magic of Pierre Loti's Icelandic Fisherman. Unusually for sea stories, there is a family reunion at the end, but apart from that pleasure lies the affirmation of Claire's unique experience of a lone voyage, and it glitters as brightly as the ice cliffs she has seen.

Gillian Cross's The Iron Way, first published in 1979, deals with the painful dislocation and isolation caused by poverty and prejudice. Kate and Jem Penfold's father has been deported, their mother died after the birth of the baby they are now struggling to raise. This brother and sister, bound together by duty, but not yet affection, recall so many of our family relationships. Sussex at the beginning of the railway age is an austere landscape, but it's changing as the "iron way", built by immigrant navvies, approaches. The Penfolds, alone in the village, take in one of the labourers, Connor, as a lodger, and we see love and tragedy building up as remorselessly as any head of steam.

The story is genuinely moving and the clarity of its intention and execution give it a power which Frankie Calvert's The Sea Serpent dissipates. Despite lovely touches, such as tears described as "wet little traitors", my attention wandered.

In an addition to the pile of time-warp novels, Helena, 14, alienated from her mother and brother, is deflected from joining a local play and sent to care for odd little Trevor and his even odder parents at the seaside.

It's a device-driven story, with plot complications piled up and neatly sorted out for the reader at the end, but it lacks authenticity. Merely writing about strangeness does not ensure that readers experience it.

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