In the Bag
By Jim Carrington
I have never really been a fan of the "kitchen sink" school of fiction for children and young adults. While we all recognise that, sadly, family breakdowns, sex, drugs, alcohol and poverty play too big a part in the lives of many of the children we teach, I have never been convinced that we need to rub their noses in it when it comes to their reading.
However, interacting with a text is a complex process and for all the attractions of the many types of escapist fiction, reading - like talk - is an important way to make sense of the world in which we live. And if all those negative and destructive qualities are present in too many children's lives, as they undoubtedly are, it is only right that books should reflect those things and help readers to understand them. My only caveat is that the unrelenting misery should not be glamorised, gratuitous or false.
Primary teacher Jim Carrington is not guilty on any of these counts. He doesn't wallow in the misery of his main protagonist, Ash, and very little of this "realistically" rooted story is gratuitous. Despite the alcohol, drugs, family ructions and general "hanging-out-at-the rec" scenes that are the background of the book, these are not themselves its focus.
What clearly interests the author most are the decisions made by the teenage Ash and Joe when they find a crashed car in the woods and, nearby, a bag containing #163;20,000. It is late at night, they have been drinking, and taking it to the police is not an option. By morning Ash has talked first himself, and then Joe, into believing that hanging on to the money and spending some of it is by far the most attractive and sensible option.
This is the start of a pacy, tense story that is a page-turner from the very beginning. Told in alternate chapters by Ash and Joe, the book explores the relationship between the two friends as Ash, in particular, makes bad decision after bad decision. And over the course of the week in which the book is set, those decisions force them inexorably further and further from their comfort zone and into a world of real danger where #163;20,000 of drug money means big men with guns determined to reclaim what is "rightfully" theirs.
Ash's propensity for making the wrong decisions is not helped by the bravado he counterfeits to disguise his pain at the impending break-up of his parents' marriage. Vulnerable to a degree he has not grasped, he slips into drug-dealing and gun-carrying while all the time justifying these dangerous developments as somehow sensible responses to their ever-deteriorating situation. Joe is far more balanced and his supportive family background is presented as a stabilising factor.
As the dynamics between the two boys, and between them and their friends, changes, the book's overriding question becomes what will it take for Ash to make the right decision, own up to having got it all wrong and involve the police?
In a note at the end of the book, Carrington explains that the inspiration for In the Bag came when he witnessed a man being chased by police. The man threw away a holdall, which he presumed contained money, and wondered, "Would whoever found the bag keep it or hand it over to the police? I wondered whether anybody would be able to keep a secret that big or whether it would slowly eat away at them." The result of this speculation produces a series of moral and ethical dilemmas which would make excellent discussion points with a class. And in a wider context, the author raises searching questions about our capacity to make decisions, what constitutes good and bad decision-making, why we find it so difficult to admit that we have got something wrong, and the psychologically destructive power of guilty secrets.
I could quibble with the book's rather melodramatic ending and mutter about the lack of richness of its language, but In the Bag is a thoroughly good read and teenagers, especially boys, will love it. At the same time they are going to have to think about genuinely important issues, presented here in a credible context with insight and urgency. And that, surely, cannot be a bad thing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - JIM CARRINGTON
Jim Carrington is a primary teacher who lives in south-west London. In the Bag is his second novel. His first book, Inside My Head, is also published by Bloomsbury and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and long-listed for the UK Literacy Association book award.
The verdict 910.