Stories people tell

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Robert Dunbar selects novels on the theme of shifting values

Web of Lies By Beverley Naidoo Puffin, pound;4.99

Traitor By Gudrun Pausewang, translated by Rachel Ward Andersen Press, Pounds 5.99

One Chance By Steve May Egmont Children's Books, pound;4.99

Beverley Naidoo won the Carnegie Medal for The Other Side of Truth, in which Sade and her younger brother Femi are stranded in London after their mother is murdered in Nigeria and their father goes into hiding. In the sequel, Sade is 14 and the family, reunited at the end of the first book, are living in a London council flat and awaiting news on their application for asylum (they have already had to contend with the frustrations and inconsistencies of British bureaucracy). While memories of their Nigerian days and, in particular, of their mother's murder continue to haunt them, they must also face up to the totally different nature of their new life:

"twisted, knotted and ragged", as Sade describes it in her diary.

Naidoo focuses on the school attended by Sade and Femi as the setting where the "web of lies" of the novel's title will first manifest itself.

Flattered by the apparent friendship of an older boy, Femi becomes drawn into a world of theft, drugs, extortion and violence. In turn, Sade is to be tormented by a sense of guilt as she equivocates as to when, and to what extent, their father should be informed. The fault, she tells herself, is with her new environment; here, in England, "she no longer knew how to behave".

The integrity which has characterised Naidoo's earlier children's fiction is once more strongly evident. As the ending of the novel confirms, she refuses to fabricate simple solutions to complex problems. In the process, she produces fiction which, while not always comfortable to read, compels her readers to consider the sources of their own fears and prejudices.

Some nine years after its original German publication, Gudrun Pausewang's Traitor is now available in Rachel Ward's English translation. Set as the Second World War comes to an end in the small village of Stiegnitz on the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, the novel traces the relationship between a deserting Russian soldier and 15-year-old Anna Brunner, who befriends him and hides him in a disused bunker near her family's home.

The uncertainty as to whether he will be discovered gives the book a considerable degree of dramatic tension, even if some readers will be surprised that he remains undetected for as long as he does. More interestingly, however, Pausewang's focus on Anna and her reasons for helping the Russian endows her novel with an intriguing psychological dimension, principally by contrasting Anna's innate altruism with the attitude of Felix, her younger brother.

He, unlike Anna, obeys, but never questions: the Nazi propaganda with which he has been indoctrinated as a Hitler Youth adherent has produced a boy for whom there are no doubts, for whom "everything was good or evil, black or white". The apparently irreconcilable differences in these responses lead to an ending which unflinchingly (if painfully) demonstrates the tragic consequences of certain kinds of racial and national prejudice.

To begin with, at least, Steve May's One Chance would seem to share a number of features with Pausewang's novel, though right from its attention-grabbing opening it is stylistically a very different book. May's fondness for short, jerky sentences and for rapid changes in tense between past and present results in an edgy, nervous prose which becomes an appropriate vehicle for a narrative of volatile mood swings and quickly-shifting perspectives.

Here, we are in the early days of the Second World War in the south of France, more precisely in the domaine of the Durelle family. Recently arrived in the area, they are divided in their attitudes to the encroaching conflict and are regarded with a degree of suspicion by their neighbours, some of whom are fully paid up members of the Brotherhood of France for the French and not averse to adopting ugly methods of safeguarding - as they would see it - their country's purity.

The implicit tensions become overt with the arrival of Jaq, discovered initially by teenager Lise Durelle and protected by her in hiding. The main centre of interest now becomes Jaq himself, the various versions he provides of his past and his reasons for being on the run. These domestic matters are tellingly placed against "the bigger madness, poised like a tiger" which is the war itself.

Robert Dunbar is head of English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

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