Sad song of the Blackbird

9th April 2004 at 01:00
A debut novel opens the window on an alternative Oxford: a harsh world where children survive rather than flourish. Hilary Wilce is impressed

Wednesday's Child By Eloise Millar Virago pound;10.99

The vast Blackbird Leys housing estate on the edge of Oxford is a sea of social problems. Visit it as an outsider and you find yourself tut-tutting about drink and drugs, truancy and underachievement. Visit the same estate through the eyes of writer Eloise Millar and you get the inside story.

The family Millar writes about, in this her first novel, is as dysfunctional as they come. Mum chain-smokes, coughs and cooks chips. Aunty Net is a chronic alcoholic. Eleven-year-old James is heading for trouble.

His father, Dick Roberts - he never earns the title of "Dad" - is a violent bully who knocks everybody about. The book's heroine, eight-year-old Janny, knows that Tuesdays in the family are "speechless, silent and claustrophobic - like a brewing storm of pent-up accusations" - but Wednesdays, when Dick Roberts is tired from long shifts at the local car plant, are when faces get thumped and people get dragged about by the hair.

The book opens with Janny dabbing pitifully at some cigarette burns Dick Roberts has tattooed on her brother's back, "They don't hurt too much now, do they?" she asks.

Events go from bad to worse when two girls are murdered on the estate, James takes off, and Mum has to go to hospital. But Janny finds ways of surviving. She contains her fear with imaginings of ghosts and fairies; she accepts the grime and squalor around her; and although her all-seeing eye falls on every detail of her family's troubles, she also knows that she is surrounded by people who, in their own flawed ways, love her.

Millar's great achievement is that by the end of the book you care about every character in it, even violent Dick Roberts, whose loneliness and pain seep out from behind the closed living-room door. What could have been cardboard cut-outs of social problems become real people, far more complex individuals than the bleak limits of their lives would suggest.

Not that she romanticises their situation. Through Janny's eyes she gives the reader vivid close-ups of Mum's bruises, and the phlegm and broken glass on the steps up to her redoubtable grandmother's maisonette. At Aunty Net's fetid house, with its one roller skate in the long grass by the front path, "I pushed some clothes, dirty plates and old milk cartons off from the sofaI A trickle of lumpy liquid dribbled out of a carton and on to the carpet, but it didn't really matter. The house was so generally squalid that another mucky puddle wasn't going to hurt."

But Millar also shows how humour and tenderness can root in the least promising soil. One day Mum dares to stand up to Dick Roberts's vile temper and defend Janny, until Nan comes to lead her away. "Watching their retreating figures made me want to cry more than being hit did. Maybe it was their heads bowed together, the one black, the one grey, their bodies so close together that they almost seemed to be bleeding into one another.

And the tender, reassuring noises that Nan was making.

"Nan paused and swivelled her head around towards me, cocking her chin for me to follow.

" 'Come on poppet,' she said, softly. 'Come upstairs with us.' " Millar's other great talent is for depicting childhood exactly as it is.

She understands how much children know and see, and the ways in which they avoid talking to each other about it. She also knows that what appear as bare parks and bleak crescents to adult eyes are, to the children who live there, a whole universe, studded with significant landmarks.

School, not surprisingly, is peripheral to what is going on at home. When it does enter Janny's consciousness it is only to describe the graffiti-scribbled mobile classrooms at her brother's middle school - "their temporary existence was accentuated by the dirty brick-stilts they balanced on, though in the main, or so the local adults said, they had lasted longer than the teachers ever had" - and the supply teacher at her own school: "whenever she came it was like having a holiday in school hours". But it is an incident of school-related bullying that precipitates changes to Janny's world, changes that seem a fraction too optimistic, given the continuing problems all around.

Any reader will enjoy this book and the way its spare, clear prose gives a window on to another world, while teachers with troubled children in their class could well use it to understand a lot more about what is going on in those young-old heads in front of them.

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