On the trail of home truths;Children's Books

16th April 1999 at 01:00
LIAR. By Robert Leeson. Puffin pound;4.99.

HUNTING GUMNOR. by Stephen Potts. Mammoth pound;4.50.

These new novels, by two children's writers at very different stages of their careers, both feature a hunt for a missing someone or something. Both main characters have to solve a mystery connected with that disappearance and in the process find out something about themselves.

Robert Leeson, an elder statesman of British children's fiction, puts the experience of writing some 60 novels for young people to good effect when he pursues this quest theme in his teenage thriller, Liar. Leeson's narrator, Mack, tells us the story of his search for Tel, a classmate notorious for his lies and fantasies, who mysteriously disappears from home.

Leeson skilfully explores the nature of memory and the process of remembering as Mack, self-appointed detective, strives to recall everything he can about Tel and his family in order literally to uncover his secret.

The novel also examines the nature of truth through Mack's encounters with the various adults involved and his contact with the worlds of advertising, art and journalism. In the end, his investigations lead to discoveries about himself and his own family, as well as Tel's.

The prose is lean and tight throughout, the narration and dialogue convincing, and Leeson uses all his know-how to keep us guessing about Tel's true circumstances until the very end, even if it seems a little implausible that Mack should take so long to remember crucial incidents.

A well-crafted, compelling novel by an acknowledged master of the art.

Stephen Potts' first novel, Hunting Gumnor, written for the same 10-plus readership, is certainly one to remember. This is the story of Rarty Boofus and her family, keepers of Gumnor, a whale-type creature or "hugumnodin". She is reputedly the last of her species and functions as a living foghorn for the seafaring community.

When Gumnor mysteriously snaps her chain and vanishes, Rarty becomes obsessed by the quest to find and save her, We willingly suspend our disbelief at the outlandish names and the mythical beast as we become involved in this absorbing narrative, thanks to Potts's convincing creation of the island setting, the local community and language, and the Boofus family and their friends.

His prose is evocative and atmospheric, capturing the sound and taste of the sea, but at other times it's unobtrusive, pushing the storyline forward. Potts has managed a rare feat - which many more experienced writers would envy - of creating an exciting yarn with a surprise ending, which at the same time is an exploration of the theme of "coming home", both for the island folk and their fabulous beast.

Michael Lockwood is a lecturer in English and education at Reading University

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