Telepathy and water birth Viking style

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Joanna Porter reads fiction which yields rewards for the not-quite-adult reader.

LISTEN TO THE DARK By Maeve Henry Methuen Contents Pounds 3.99.

TIME WRECK By Vivien Alcock Methuen Contents Pounds 3.99.

HEARING VOICES By Judith O'Neill Hamish Hamilton Pounds 10.

THE VISION By Pete Johnson Methuen Contents Pounds 3.99.

ESCAPE By June Oldham THE FATED SKY By Henrietta Branford Both Hodder Signatures Pounds 3.99.

I write as a fiction addict who, in adolescence, came close to kicking the habit. Feeling too grown-up for all that Narnia nonsense yet still too young for the heavies, I foundered unhappily until O-level literature redeemed me. Since then, of course, publishing houses have cottoned on to the teen market with a venge-ance, struggling hard to cater for those "difficult years" with not-too-difficult texts.

Methuen's Contents series seems intent on bridging the gap between the old-style traditional (as favour-ed by parents) and the disconcertingly trendy (as respected by peer group), often within the confines of a single book. Maeve Henry's Listen to the Dark and Vivien Alcock's Time Wreck are at one in taking us back into the safe fictional confines of the intriguingly locked cupboard, so rest assured, teenies, you haven't quite done with those wardrobes yet.

Henry's misfit anti-hero Mark discovers in his cupboard bewildering old photographs of the brain-damaged sister hidden from him by protective parents; Alcock's anti-heroine Spooky-Loonie Mary finds an old tome of her great-great-grandmother's, now deemed "dangerous" by an over-anxious mother. Importantly, both reads tantalise, with those essential ingredients of new teen fiction - telepathy and cross-generational and sibling interplay - being very much the order of the day. Alcock even throws in a spot of familial time-trav-el but whether backwards, forwards, or sideways is left for the reader to fathom.

Hearing Voices by Judith O'Neill ventures again into telepathic regions with the past struggling to save the present from self-destruction. We are talking seriously extended families here, not least because ancestors from bygone times have a habit of popping up at this vast Australian gathering of the originally-from-Skye MacDonald clan.

We are led via numerous "barbies with the rellies" to a nail-biting conclusion complete with kidnapping and imprisonment, but the narrative complexities of this veritable saga are in danger of confounding the less-than-resolute reader mid-way. "I'm getting confused among so many strangers," observes one of the many characters. Not half.

In Pete Johnson's The Vision, another Contents title, the telepathic is upstaged by the positively transcendental when distressed schoolgirl Tara abandons the security blanket of her dad's old Jennings books and finds alternative comfort in charismatic, black teacher Paul with his earnestly proffered spiritual guidance.

Non-judgmental and non-commital, Johnson offers no final verdict on the validity of Tara's subsequent and questionable "vision" and expertly side-tracks the issues of racism and teacher-pupil relations which might so easily have swamped this finely-balanced but potentially precarious novel.

The Signature series from Hodder is rather more confrontational in its handling of contentious teenage concerns in books which can be at once deceptively simple yet emotionally and conceptually demanding. June Oldham's Escape, for instance, is the story of 18-year-old Magdalen's flight from long-term sexual abuse at the hands of the widowed father whom she nonetheless loves. Her history is so subtly recounted that a naive reader might almost miss the point. Much of it is told in the form of an extended fairy-tale, complete with handsome, kindly king and repulsive, maurauding monster, who just happen to be one and the same person.

By the time readers leave Magdalen with her attendant young knight in a red hatchback, they may have managed by indirections to find directions out, depending on their proficiency in reading the sometimes cryptic signs. In all, a mini-masterpiece of delicate evasion that will yield still more with a second reading.

In contrast, Henrietta Branford's The Fated Sky yanks us unceremoniously into the violent world of young Viking girl, Ran, whom we witness sleeping next to the corpse of her savagely slaughtered mother, losing her virginity to tender, blind musician Toki, having a lurid miscarriage during a near-shipwreck and delivering her first-born in an Icelandic stream. This just has to be the first and perhaps the only water birth in teen fiction, and in case you're wondering, Toki is at hand to sever the cord with his teeth.

To call this book compulsive would be an understatement: teen readers will relish it and I've a feeling that Ran's story will simply run and run.

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