Tedious trials of youth

9th August 1996 at 01:00
FIRST TIME, By Lara Harte, Phoenix House Pounds 14.99. NEW BOY, By William Sutcliffe, Penguin Pounds 6.99. FRENCH LEAVE, By Eileen Fairweather. CAIRO HUGHES, By Millie Murray. FAT CHANCE, By Leslea Newman, All Women's Press, Livewires Pounds 3.50 each.

Summer holidays tend to shift long-simmering family and relationship problems on to the front burner. Those sullen groups on the beach which include a misunderstood teenager, or an adult who behaves like one, need to choose their reading matter carefully.

Adolescent issues - broken families, eating disorders, substance abuse - are big media business and novels for 12 to 16-year-olds often parade them in the blurb like birthday card badges. Many people claim to understand the world view of this age group, from Larry Clark, director of the controversial tell-all film kids, released earlier this year, to the publishers of the more squeaky-clean US imports - chirpy fiction about cheerleaders and baseball jocks.

Two novels that give less attention to issues than to feelings have been marketed for adults and should be read with a health warning about sex talk and bad language. They capture what "young adult" novels with too heavy an issue agenda often miss - the general lows of terminal boredom and the general highs of having a laugh with your mates.

Both authors are in their 20s and writing from relatively recent memory. Lara Harte's first novel First Time is only tangentially about underage sex, despite its kids-style sleazy cover.

Part of the action trails 14-year-old girls around a Dublin estate as they get illegally drunk and chase gruesome boys - hedonism at its least appealing. Perhaps the northern European climate and the lack of cafe society is to blame.

The tale suffers from its painstaking documentation of the more tedious trials of youth. All those hungover bus rides and desperate make-up sessions are almost unbearable to read about.

They sound as dreary as they really are. First Time is rescued by its focus on the hit-and-miss friendship and power struggle between the unconfident, suburban Cassandra and Emma, queen bee of the estate gang. It lays bare the mechanics of bullying and the complexities of class. But Harte can't compete with those other chroniclers of Irish adolescence, Roddy Doyle and the early Edna O'Brien, on pace, humour and empathy.

New Boy by William Sutcliffe is sharper, funnier and crueller. Mark, a Jewish sixth former, fancies his friend Barry, but does his best to reject the notion that he might be gay. All superiority, self-pity and self-delusion, he is a sympathetic character in spite of himself and his agonies will entertain and inform.

Homophobia, including the internalised variety, is one area that issue-led fiction tends to avoid. No sign of it yet among the Women's Press new Livewire titles. Star of the list is Eileen Fairweather's Maxine Harrison, whose delightfully over-the-top French Letters appeared in the first bundle of Livewires in 1987.

The nine-year wait for the sequel, French Leave, has led to hiccups in continuity. Even the title means nothing unless you have read the first book, in which Maxine, a bus conductor's daughter from Hornsey, falls for a snooty French boy.

The Maxine of French Leave is only a few months older but the world has moved on nine years. Fairweather has meticulously documented changes in the political climate since French Letters, giving a mid-90s gloss to Maxine's perennial concerns - lack of privacy, family rows, limited rights and sexual insecurity. Her father is now unemployed, her mother has two badly paid jobs and Maxine can't afford to do her A-levels.

The careful cultural references may add to the confusion awaiting new readers who liked French Leave and seek out French Letters, written in the (faint) rosy afterglow of the GLC. Maxine's earlier persona is dated by more than her Lurex top and fantasies about the "future" Channel tunnel.

Other Livewires to look out for are Millie Murray's touching, thoughtful Cairo Hughes, about a black girl juggling emotional ties to her white adoptive family with the need to discover her roots, and Leslea Newman's Fat Chance, the diary of a bright, attractive Jewish-American girl dangerously obsessed with her weight. Confusingly, there is another excellent novel about body image by Jacqueline Roy with the same title (published last year by Puffin). It's hard to say what is most chilling about Newman's treatment - Judi's daily weigh-ins or the speed with which she learns deception. Her wit and charm, which will draw in the readers who want to know about eating disorders, makes the details of her self-destructive behaviour more poignant.

The wider picture of an image-conscious school community is well drawn, but the hopeful ending comes too soon.

Time does funny things in teenage fiction - problems take decades to build up but crisis and resolution must be packed into a couple of school terms.

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