Teenage fiction

25th May 2001 at 01:00
STOP PRETENDING. By Sonya Sones. Orion Children's Books. pound;8.99. TES pound;7.99. (10 copies pound;75).

THE BRIMSTONE JOURNALS. By Ron Koertge. Walker Books. pound;4.99. TES pound;3.99.

STUCK IN NEUTRAL. By Terry Trueman. Hodder Children's Books. pound;10. TES pound;8.99 (10 copies pound;85).

Narrative poetry marries nicely with contemporary teenage angst, as these books from the United States demonstrate: Sonya Sones's autobiographical book is the most strictly "bibliotherapeutic". It charts the emotional journey of 13-year-old Cookie, whose older sister breaks down and is taken to a psychiatric hospital. It should spark recognition in readers who share Cookie's situation, and empathy in those who do not.

Sones's sparse lines accentuate Cookie's grief, guilt, anger and fear; the deep silences and furious bickering of her parents; the painful loss of friends and sweetness of first love; and her relief and joy at her sister's (and family's) recovery.

The phrasing sometimes lacks originality, and the poems can seem repetitive: I wondered if, for example, one poem recalling happy, sisterly times would suffice rather than seven or eight. But, on reflection, Sones got it right. By covering the same ground from different starting points - a cluster of poems on one theme, a cluster of poems on another - she has created a complex, satisfying narrative with the texture of a novel.

If Stop Pretending is a novel in poetic guise, then The Brimstone Journals is a short story collection. There are many voices and many tales in this series of prose poems about senior year students at Branston high school: fat Lester, tormented by bullies; Vietnamese Tran and Afro-American Carter, sharpsighted outsiders with pushy parents; Joseph and Jennifer, hampered by extremist parents but attracted to each other; Sheila, in love with he best friend Monica; David, who is building a violent computer game; and others - especially Boyd, an anarchist with an arsenal in his basement and a list of classmates destined to die.

Their stories spiral towards violence, pulling the reader along at an anxious pace. Then, afterwards, they spiral out again; separate lives, separate sorrows. It's a rattling good read, although not flawless. Koertge's characters lean towards stereotype: the jock, the stud, the fat guy, and so on. But he redeems them with great lines and canny observations. Studious Tran says of his ambitious father: "His dreams are like a box that I cannot put down".

Stuck in Neutral is prose fiction, but each chapter opens with poignant epigraph, supposedly taken from a narrative poem by the narrator's father. The narrator is Shawn, 14, who has cerebral palsy, and perfect recall of everything he's ever heard. He is a genius; a sensitive, witty, self-deprecating one, with no time for self-pity. But, as he says: "Anybody who even gets near me would tell you I'm dumb as a rock."

He drools, he's incontinent, he "suffers" seizures, he can't communicate. And he believes his father is planning to "end his pain"; to kill him.

Strong material, but the narrative falls flat: Stuck in Neutral reads like a character study. The author (himself father to a teenage son with cerebral palsy) has imagined the delights of Shawn's world at length: Shawn loves life, his family and the soaring "out of body" experiences of his seizures, but the action of the story, the threat of death, is not integrated, and reads like an authorial afterthought.

The book is moving but not totally convincing. It should be useful for stimulating classroom discussion of euthanasia, but only if readers remember that this is a work of fiction.

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