24 HOURS. By Margaret Mahy. Collins Children's Books pound;10.99
Ellis is a nice boy. I'd say he was "clean cut" but this would be a misnomer, given the fate of his curly blond locks part-way through the seedy, dangerous, vibrant 24 hours described in this book.
Ellis is 17, has just left boarding school and is home for the holidays with money and his mother's car keys in his pocket. He has nothing much to do, and no best friend to hang around with. Simon, his long-time buddy, committed suicide four months ago. Ellis is handling it well, and if he isn't, his new-found drama skills cover up for him.
He wants to act, and a chance meeting with Jackie, a slightly nutty, very scruffy, school acquaintance, provides a manic array of role-playing opportunities.
Jackie takes him to The Land of Smiles, a tumbledown former motel on the wrong side of town, home to an odd family of misfits and many bizarre hangers-on. In the space of a day, Ellis becomes hopeful lover, detective, stunt driver, counsellor and drunken fool (the last requiring little dramatic skill).
Margaret Mahy's energetic plot foregrounds kidnapping, tragic revelations and romantic longings, with Simon's fate a mere whisper among the cacophony of events. Yet Simon, for Ellis, cannot quit be forgotten.
Ellis blossoms in his new environment (although his mother's car suffers), reaching an epiphany as he quotes Claudio in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure on death, under death-defying and life-saving circumstances: "The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death."
Perhaps Ellis's moment of freedom, his escape from the oppression of Simon's death, is unconvincing (as epiphanies all too often are in literature), but its message is clear, powerful and important for societies where the youth suicide rate is soaring (such as New Zealand, Mahy's home and the setting for 24 Hours). Suicide, Ellis deduces, is neither glamorous nor gratifying.
Mahy depicts sleazy, sometimes tragic lives with great fondness and warmth, showing the mundane within the offbeat, the ordinary within the intensity of death. There is passion and pain here, but tempered with humour and irony, and neatly integrated into the breathless narrative, which tugs the reader ever onwards.
If this is a didactic work, it is subtly so; not until closing the cover should most readers reflect that 24 Hours is a novel "about death" - a speedy, jangling, compassionate one.