Teenage fiction

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
SECRETS IN THE FIRE. By Henning Mankell. Translated by Anne Connie Stuksrud. Allen and Unwin pound;5.50.

MERCY'S BIRDS. By Linda Holeman. Floris Books pound;4.99.

WHITE STRANGER. By Susan Gates. Oxford University Press pound;5.99.

FALLING. By Anne Provoost. Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. Allan and Unwin pound;5.50

In a refreshing change from the Bridget Jones school of teenage fiction, this selection aims to widen readers' horizons rather than replicate what they already know.

Secrets in the Fire, for readers of about 11 up, is based on a true story from Mozambique. Sofia Alface has lost both legs in a landmine explosion which has killed her sister. The family lives in poverty, and the medical attention Sofia receives is rudimentary. She is turned away from home by her callous new stepfather, but acquires artificial limbs, learns to sew, and finds strength in the memory of her sister.

Told in simple, poetic prose, this is a moving portrayal of life in a country in which survival cannot be assured, and where even a maimed 12-year-old must work hard for her living.

For slightly older readers, Mercy's Birds shows a teenager at breaking point. Mercy's mother is a manic depressive; her aunt, Moo, who shares their flat, lives in an alcoholic haze; Moo's boyfriend, Barry, makes sexual advances to Mercy.

With no one to confide in, Mercy turns in on herself. She dyes her hair black, wears only black clothes and avoids the bitchy girls who ridicule her at school. So introverted does she become that she can't recognise friendship when it's offered.

Crisis point comes when Mercy's mother is admitted to hospital, and Barry returns when Mercy is alone and ill. But help comes in the almost fairy-godmother-like figure of Mercy's gran, and others whose support Mercy has been slow to acknowledge.

Told in the first person, this is an absorbing story with a range of engaging characters.

In White Stranger it's not only 15-year-old Trish but also her parents who are outsiders in an unnamed, newly-independent African country in the 1960s. Trish attends the school where her parents teach. Her whiteness is even more apparent when she goes to stay with a friend, Grace, in a remote village.

Flattered by Grace's friendship, Trish is disillusioned to find she is being manipulated. She makes startling discoveries - the new baby of the family is Grace's son, the result of a rape; there is simmering insurrection at her parents' school.

Although ambitious in scope, the novel is too short to give more than glimpses into Trish's world, and the pace falters towards the end.

Anne Provoost's award-winning novel Falling, first published in Belgium, is told in cool, detached first-person narrative, and has topical concerns: Holocaust denial, racial intolerance, freedom of speech and personal responsibility. It's a pity the blurb tells us Lucas's grandfather betrayed Jewish children during the German occupation (the book is set in France) as the reader must pretend not to know this during the slow-drip revelation of the first 100 or so pages.

But this is only part of the story. Lucas, seen by local neo-Nazis as a likely sympathiser for their campaign against immigrant workers, is so in thrall to the Machiavellian Benoit that he ignores obvious dangers.

The opening pitches us into the aftermath of an accident to Caitlin, the attractive dancer who fascinates Lucas. The novel, unfolding in flashback, slowly exerts a thriller-like grip as we anticipate the accident, wonder how Lucas might contribute to it, and see clearly what he has failed to realise - how he has compromised himself, and how Benoit will turn public speculation and revulsion to his own advantage.

This is a sophisticated and compelling novel for older teenagers and adults.

Linda Newbery teaches English at Matthew Arnold School, Oxford


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