Teenage fiction

9th May 1997 at 01:00
TENDERNESS. By Robert Cormier. Gollancz Pounds 11.99

CALLING HOME. By Michael Cadnum. Penguin Pounds 10.99

THE HIDDEN CHILD. By Anne Cassidy. Scholastic Pounds 7.99 Edited by Richard Pring and Geoffrey Walford

Falmer Press. Pounds 39 and Pounds 14.95 (pbk)

Robert Cormier? I'll take that, thank you." On spying Tenderness, my teenage daughter reacted as if pipped to the latest Kula Shaker CD. "It's not suitable for old people."

She was right. From the devastatingly unflattering portrait of the heroine Lori's sagging mother, middle-aged readers know immediately this is not meant for their eyes. Too harrowing. The young have stronger stomachs.

Cormier catches exactly the spiky, false self-assurance of a neglected adolescent left to shift for herself and find what comfort she can. Lori casually states her intention to hitch to the next town to stay with invented friends, George and Martha. This is the point at which the "old" reader's heart sinks. Here is precisely the sort of young woman who ended her days in the Wests' cellars. It's lip-shredding tension from here on in.

Sure enough, Lori is pulled into the orbit of Eric Poole, 18 years old, newly-released from juvenile custody for the murder of his mother and stepfather, with three unsolved murders (of young women) to add to the list.

Though the story is Lori's, in giving a substantial space to Poole Cormier has to get over the psychopath problem. Psychos are, by definition,dead inside, totally lacking in empathy. How, then, to keep the reader turning pages? The mind of a psycho is not a place one wants to linger.

Jeopardy and ingenuity can substitute: will the villain overcome the obstacles he faces, will he get caught? Cormier uses this device. When Poole, forewarned, carefully avoids the traps set by the ageing police lieutenant who suspects him of the other murders, we can admire his cunning and restraint. But Cormier has a subtler purpose. The incident where Poole stops short of killing the prison bully is also the first hint of possible salvation.

How Cormier achieves this, imperceptibly shifting sympathies to arrive at its ironic sweet-sour ending, would be telling.

Empathy is also a problem with Peter, the narrator of Calling Home. A young alcoholic, failing school, who threatens his mother and despises his shallow girlfriend, he's hard to like. Peter kills his best friend Mead while drunk, then tries to cover up by phoning Mead's parents and impersonating him. His reasoning is confused, verging on psychotic.

The prose has a mesmerising underwater quality, especially when "recalling" the dead Mead, in which we glimpse a different, artistic, sensitive Peter beneath the booze.

Teenagers may identify more with the smart-ass, nihilist pose Peter adopts as a defence. The collapse of this persona in the face of one of the few admirable adults in these books is particularly moving. Worth the effort.

Lou's mother Anna in The Hidden Child seems like another one of the feckless parents common in teen fiction, creeping away in the middle of the night from a succession of temporary homes, forbidding Lou contact with her old friends. Lou views her as a liar and a thief, and an old report of a toddler kidnapping serves to confirm her worst suspicions and throws disturbing light on her "hidden origins".

Lou is the most appealing and "normal" of this bunch, so one is happy to discover that teenagers don't always know everything. I had a good weep as Lou realises just in time who her "real" mother is.

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