Teenage fiction

8th September 2000 at 01:00
MISSING. By Catherine MacPhail. Bloomsbury Children's Books, pound;4.99. WARLANDS. By Rachel Anderson. Oxford University Press pound;5.99

I took my breakfast and Catherine MacPhail's Missing out to the garden, intending to enjoy 15 minutes worth of sun by the shed. I was still there two hours later, turning the final page to read a notice for the National Missing Persons Helpline. The need to avoid giving away information about the plot to potential readers when writing about this type of page-turning thriller makes it difficult to comment in any detail. Suffice to say that, although the central situation involves a runaway teenager, Derek (who is in due course certified dead by the grieving parents), the central focus is Derek's sister, Maxine, and her sense of isolation.

The family dynamics of grief - in particular the mother's obdurate surrender to irrationality - are wonderfully described by Macphail. But the book is never morbid, with its momentum driven by Maxine's investigation into the bullying forces that led to her brother's departure.

On finishing the novel, a reader is likely to reflect that the author has stretched credulity in two significant regards. Maxine's total lack of female friends is never satisfactorily explained. And two or three episodes involving disembodied voices are decidedly "stagey". But ultimately, the power of the storytelling is sufficient to ensure suspension of disbelief while reading.

Rachel Anderson won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award in 1992. Since then she has continued to produce marvellous novels, including the recent Moving Times trilogy from Hodder Children's books. Warlands is just as cmpelling a read as Missing, although its narrative style is looser and less episodic.

Amy, while staying with her grandparents, asks to be told about her Uncle Ho, whose story unfolds as a series of bedtime tales, told for the most part by the grandmother, but usually from other family members' points of view. Ho is a refugee from Vietnam. He was taken in by the Herbert family after a harrowing visit to a children's home.

There is a wickedly satirical vignette early on, while Ho is still in the home, involving a group of "kind-hearted widows" who try to do their Christian duty one Christmas but are only prepared to give on their terms. When their charity is not received with due obsequious thanks, they decide to transfer their attentions to rescued donkeys.

For the most part, however, Anderson is at pains to convey the warmth of the Herbert household and the family's progress towards accommodating Ho's nightmarish reaction to anything that reminds him of Vietnam, and in particular his loud, uncontrollable howling.

Ben, another uncle, emerges as a hero straight out of Louisa M Alcott when, as a young child, he exhorts the rest of the exhausted and weakening family, "We got to love Ho and love him. And go on loving him till he gets better."

Sophisticated readers will also appreciate Anderson's fascinating examination of the relationship between self-identity and story, emphasised at the end, when Amy herself is put in the position of bedtime storyteller and decides to make up a new story about Uncle Ho. A quite wonderful novel.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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