Teenage fiction

29th June 2001 at 01:00
THE BEAT GOES ON. By Adele Minchin. Women's Press. pound;5.99. Available from TESDirect.

FACE TO FACE. By Sandra Glover. Andersen Press. pound;9.99. TESDirect pound;8.99.

(UN)ARRANGED MARRIAGE. By Bali Rai. Corgi. pound;4.99. Available from TESDirect.

BILLY ELLIOT. By Melvin Burgess and Lee Hall. The Chicken House. pound;4.99. Available from TESDirect.

Few writers have dealt with the subject of the threat of serious illness as successfully as Alison Leonard in Tinker's Career or Jean Ure in One Green Leaf. The risk is that the author's responsibility to convey information can dominate, at the expense of satisfying fiction. Compared to Leonard and Ure's novels, The Beat Goes On and Face to Face run on single tracks and are hampered by didactic intent. But, dealing with HIV and anorexia respectively, they cover important ground.

Adele Minchin draws on experience of working with young people affected by HIV or Aids for her first novel. Leyla, the spirited narrator, learns that her cousin Emma is HIV-positive.

The author knows the prejudices sufferers and their supporters face; she is realistic, too, about the outlook for Emma, and the early treatment she receives. The chatty first-person narrative makes for easy appeal to readers but has its limitations in phrases such as "it felt like an eternity" and "a yawning gulf between us". On the plus side, there are few novels for teenagers dealing with HIVAids, and this is honest and well informed.

In Face to Face, Adelle suffers from an eating disorder that we only gradually realise is anorexia, and is "haunted" by a frightening face in a mirror. Late in the novel, an unsurprised therapist identifies this hallucination as "the anorexic voice", an angry part of Adelle that exerts fierce control over her thoughts and behaviour. This is an interesting plot device, as is the background to Adelle's breakdown. Although the minor characters are thinly drawn, Sandra Glover shows the image-distorting grip of anorexia, and how sufferers contrive to put themselves beyond help.

Two enjoyable novels by male writers share the theme of boys establishing independence from demanding families. Bali Rai's first novel, (Un)arranged Marriage, is unusual in giving a male view of its subject, that of Manjit, from a Punjabi family in Leicester, whose strict father orders him to marry on his 17th birthday. There's a real sense of the need for individuality set against cultural straitjacketing. Rai has an unselfconscious style, and a dry sense of the ridiculous; the story passes from teenage narrator to teenage reader without adult intervention, giving it an appealingly subversive edge.

Melvin Burgess's novelisation of Billy Elliot starts with the key advantages of a cover instantly recognisable from the Bafta-winning film and an author known for hard-hitting social realism. Burgess divides his first-person narrative between Billy, his father and brother, and his gay-tending best friend, Michael. This is effective, allowing us to see, from Billy's viewpoint, the problems facing a boy from a Durham mining family who gets lured into ballet, and his father's anguish over the caving-in of the miners' strike and the blow to his pride when he discovers Billy isn't attending boxing lessons.

The asterisking of f*** is a distraction, given the other uncensored expletives in the text. With or without stars, Billy Elliot is tough enough to appeal to boys as well as girls, and should continue to leap off the shelves.

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