Troubled minds

13th February 2004 at 00:00
THE OPPOSITE OF CHOCOLATE. By Julie Bertagna. Young Picador pound;9.99

FINDING CASSIE CRAZY. By Jaclyn Moriarty. Young Picador pound;9.99

BABYSHOES. By Dawn Garisch. Simon amp; Schuster pound;8.99

FALL OUT. By Lynda Waterhouse. Piccadilly Press pound;5.99

ANOTHER LIFE. By Frank McGinty. Piccadilly Press pound;5.99

In the big-issue book The Opposite of Chocolate, 14-year-old Sapphire finds herself pregnant. We follow her struggle to come to terms not only with her condition, but with feckless parents, an ex-boyfriend, and a new boyfriend who's an arsonist. She also has to deal with falling out with her best girlfriend and the Prozac and alcoholism that litter the hinterland of life in the small town, which is symbolically named Hungry.

This is a brave novel, which presents the choices that are, theoretically, available to young women who find themselves unwillingly expectant, and the book is robust on how those choices are manipulated by the adults and institutions in Sapphire's world. The Catholic Church, in particular, does not emerge well.

The story is tightly plotted around an uncomfortably hot summer holiday.

The action takes us relentlessly towards the resolution of Sapphire's central dilemma: to keep the baby or not? Julie Bertagna is a writer so full of ideas that it is difficult to contain them all in one book, but her frankness is well judged and the book does not provide glib answers. All the solutions open to Sapphire have potentially uncomfortable consequences, but readers can take some comfort from the assertion that "most people get over most things".

Jaclyn Moriarty's Finding Cassie Crazy, set in Australia, transfers well to the UK. Cassie's father has died and she is advised to talk to someone about it, so she does as part of her posh school's pen pal project. When her pen pal turns out to be less than sympathetic, the story turns into a funny and good-natured whodunit. It's a pacey, tightly-woven book written in the form of notes, letters and journal entries. There is some interesting psychological probing and oblique glances at class prejudice.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, David delivers his mother's baby in the surprising and witty opening to Babyshoes. When his mother leaves home and David's stepfather threatens to send baby Kevin (his son) to a foster home, David decides to run away with the baby to a town where his own birth-father just happens to live. The originally charming and funny David becomes far too old for his shirt and starts dispensing wisdom in increasingly turgid chunks, finally demanding that his parents (now tenuously re-united) stop arguing, hand the baby over to him and treat him as an adult. They agree, of course.

It's great that a novel for this age group has a male hero who is committed to caring for a baby and finds out that it isn't very easy, but the denouement is slappingly heavy-handed.

Fall Out is another novel that starts out perkily, but loses credibility as the narrative unravels. Stella and Lotte have been best friends forever, sharing an imaginative fantasy world as "The Edge Girls". Their falling out is unfortunately and spectacularly exacerbated when Stella's dad has a mid-life crisis, buys a Versace leather jacket and sets up house with Lotte's mum.

In the beginning there are some good, if old jokes. I particularly liked the line about the sheepdog bra ("rounds them up and points them in the right direction"), but the narrative progresses to a less than credible earnestness as the girls inevitably re-establish their friendship, older, wiser and much less funny.

There are no jokes at all in Another Life, in which we experience the double life of Mel Jane as she desperately tries to forge a new life in a school on a different side of the tracks to the one that life has dealt her. Now she is away from her addict father and brother and the memory of her dead addict mother. It all ends well and MelJane is embraced by the middle classes and cured of her "Dissociative Identity Disorder". Tell me again what Larkin said about parents.

Jo Klaces is on sabbatical from teaching English at St Philip's Sixth-Form Centre, Birmingham

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