Teenage angst has advantages

25th October 1996 at 01:00
RUNAWAY By Evelyn Lau Minerva Pounds 5.99.

Is there anything worse than being 14 years old? Only being 15 years old,probably. At least in our western culture, where adolescents have no responsibility, huge expectations laid on them by themselves, their peer groups and their elders and few or no guidelines from religion and social mores.

Add to that raging hormones, easy availability of drugs and a confusing proliferation of social services mushrooming around disintegrating families and you have conditions ripe for the experiences detailed in Runaway.

Runaway is painful and, it must be said, repetitive reading. Following the format of such low-life chroniclers as Jean Genet, Evelyn Lau records the minutiae of her descent - or is it progress? - through simple truancy to drugs and prostitution. Slightly exotic, since the writer comes from a Chinese family living on the west coast of Canada, it yet strikes familiar notes.

Now, apparently, Ms Lau is a respected writer. Perhaps this is thanks to the social workers, psychotherapists and friends whose interventions she faithfully documents, perhaps to an innate toughness in the girl herself, but equally, perhaps, to habits of perseverance and single-mindedness inculcated in her by the parents she hates, loves, fears and relentlessly defines herself against.

Unsurprisingly to older readers, she discovers that drugs and prostitution are not all they are cracked up to be and that illusions of power and invulnerability are just illusions. It is more fulfilling to keep going to her classes at the college and try to build real relationships. Wow.

For younger readers, however, for instance those bolshy 15-year-olds in personal and social education classes, this could be dynamite. Lau's battle against her deep-rooted feelings of worthlessness which she acts out in her dramas on the streets and in men's cars are but an extreme version of many young people's struggle to create a workable identity.

Lots to strike a chord here in descriptions of states of mind and fleeting encounters. Lots of peculiar analyses of people's motivations: adults tend to be either benevolent yet disappointing fath-er-figures or remote and chilling mother-figures; peers as hopeless-ly confused as the heroine herself.

A peculiar angle to so much pointless misery is added by the constant involvement of the social services. Even while Evelyn is sniffing lines of cocaine, she is aware of the necessity of keeping her psychotherapy appointments and maintaining contacts with the various agencies responsible for young people in Vancouver.

This careful monitoring of her situation made me feel cynically that she was in it for the material. or was she just a good old-fashioned Chinese girl after all, making thrifty use of left-over bits of life?

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