Teenage fiction

30th June 2000 at 01:00
RASPBERRIES ON THE YANGTZE. By Karen Wallace. Simon amp; Schuster pound;7.99

MOVING TIMES TRILOGY. Bloom of Youth. Grandmother's Footsteps. Stronger than Mountains. By Rachel Anderson. Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99 each

The lure of these novels lies initially in a combination of Fifties nostalgia and delightfully eccentric characters. The authors, who are both prolific and accomplished writers for children, present tales from their own early adolescence, which seems long ago enough to have retro appeal.

The key factor that will hook today's readers, however, is the empathy with the world view of young girls puzzling out the adult world. They also have in common a strong narrative voice with a ring of today.

Karen Wallace has written more than 70 titles for younger children and is probably best known for her text for the classic non-fiction picture book, Think of an Eel. This is her first venture into fiction for the11-plus age group and she imports some of the qualities of her earlier work: a picture-book writer's economical text, resulting in half-page vignettes of outstanding clarity, and a delight in the natural world.

The setting is rural Canada, on the Gatineau river near Ottawa. Nancy, her brother Andrew and their friends Clare and Amy spend the summer paddling on logs, having out-of-bounds adventures in the woods and playing chicken on the railway track. The Yangtze is their name for a wire fence - one of the landmarks in the map of Nancy's vivid imagination - and the noise it makes as the explorers bounce on it. But the adult world is starting to intrude.

Karen Wallace's material is familiar - misunderstandings about the facts of life (Nancy thinks the deed has to be done in a cupboard), grown-ups' secrets ripe for eavesdropping ears, family dynamics - but she makes it read like previously unexplored territory. Older teenage readers who enjoy this book could be pointed towards Alice Mnro's stories.

Rachel Anderson's autobiographical trilogy is like a patchwork quilt in three panels and will intrigue young writers experimenting with different ways of arranging narrative. It's a non-chronological family saga in which the same central events are retold three times from the same point of view, but with shifts in timescale and emphasis which add new material in each book. Books two and three extend and complete the story told in book one, Bloom of Youth, which introduces the narrator, Ruth, at 13, the age where she will have most reader appeal.

Anyone who is addicted to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle will want the chance to read all three in sequence and will particularly enjoy the first book for the bohemian chaos of the decrepit country house where Ruth's mother, Veritas, writes stirring pageants and takes in paying guests. Again, nostalgia is not all this story has to offer: Ruth is a contemporary heroine with a contemporary voice and her response to her father's death will win readers' hearts.

Anderson also builds up an engaging portrait of Ruth's grandmother and namesake, the country rector's wife who is a "rock of ages" to the grandchild who feels adrift in her large family. Young Ruth's childhood illness, her recovery at Granny's house and the bond growing between them makes up much of book two.

The selfish and vain Veritas has great capacity for fabrication and self-deception, despite her name (Granny's daughters are named after cardinal virtues and her sons after birds of prey). Veritas swaps her children's sweet coupons for gin and nylons in ration-bound London and treats her family like extras in her own personal pageant, but Anderson celebrates her charisma and zest for living. The account of her decline and death in Stonger Than Mountains is worthy of a box of tissues. There are lots of weepy funerals in this trilogy, but plenty of irresistible life too.


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