Spooky families;Children's literature;Books

24th October 1997 at 01:00
THE SIGHTING, By Jan Mark, Viking pound;10.99. HARVEY ANGELL AND THE GHOST CHILD, By Diana Hendry, Julia MacRae pound;9.99. THE MASTER OF SECRETS, By Ruth Symes, Puffin pound;3.99

It would be fascinating to know whether Jan Mark pre-planned the complex family history which evolves in the course of her novel. I suspect that she was only ever one or two steps ahead of her two main characters, Julius and Jack.

These young cousins meet at the funeral of Jack's great-grandfather, strike up a friendship, and quickly discover festering secrets in the family closet. Actually, they stumble on ghosts or seemingly extra-terrestrial presences in the family photo album, and their quest for an explanation of the suicide which has split the family for more than a generation takes in ley lines, crop circles and the Roswell incident, when aliens were sighted.

The pleasure to be derived from this extraordinarily accomplished novel depends not on any sudden narrative twist but upon the slow accumulation of evidence and revelation. The book is extraordinary because this revelation is delivered almost entirely by means of dialogue. Although not an action novel in any sense, it is entirely gripping. Restless 11-year-olds may need to be encouraged to stick with the first 50 pages - first reference to "the sighting" is on page 48 - with the assurance that their perseverance will be rewarded.

Jan Mark is no longer one of our most talked-about children's authors. That it is no longer a foregone conclusion that her latest book will win or be shortlisted for a major award is a good pointer to the quality and competitiveness of contemporary children's fiction.

The "angel" of Diana Hendry's second Harvey Angell title (the first Harvey Angell was published in 1991, so Hendry can hardly be accused of jumping on the series bandwagon) is a "Homer": an angel specialising in the art of settling old scores, healing old wounds, and bringing roaming and agitated souls to their rest. Harvey would have had plenty to occupy him in Jan Mark's novel.

As it is, in this book he comes to the rescue of Henry, on holiday at a Fife seaside resort with his Aunt Agatha, Mr Perkins, Miss Huggins and Miss Skivvy, all characters introduced in the earlier novel.

Hendry is the author of a cleverly amusing little poem called "The Spare Room", which begins: "It was just the spare room the nobody-there room the spooks-in-the-air room the unbearable spare room," and this novel to some extent hinges upon that sense of unease which we all feel, especially in holiday cottages, when a room is not occupied. The empty room in Sibbald House holds the secret to a tragic past. Although this is a comedy, and Hendry's characters are wacky enough to be genuinely funny, the story - about a girl who lost her life when taking her brother's place in the crew of her father's herring boat - is also extremely touching.

Readers who feel at odds with life and with their peers will especially relish Henry, an oddball child surrounded by oddball adult carers. "Being odd," - one of the characters is made to say, and Henry himself later echoes - "usually means being yourself, and that's the nicest thing to be."

Ruth Symes, in her first children's book, The Master of Secrets, shows that she has her finger on puberty's pulse. Raj is convincingly hesitant about declaring his secret love for the Cypriot beauty, Katina.

However, the thrust of the story is about another secret - one of family violence, divulged to Raj in the course of a letter-exchanging exercise organised by the new English teacher. This is a cleverly-constructed short novel, and Symes is certainly a writer to watch.

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