When Gran is a girl's best friend

14th June 1996 at 01:00
THE SHADOW OF AUGUST By Sue Welford Oxford University Press Pounds 5.99.

HAS ANYONE SEEN THIS GIRL? By Jean Ure Bodley Head Pounds 8.99.

HANNAH'S GHOST By Anne Merrick Spindlewood Pounds 9.95.

JACQUELINE HYDE By Robert Swindells Doubleday Pounds 9.99.

SEA CHANGE By Christine Purkis The Bodley Head Pounds 8.99.

On the first page of The Shadow of August, Mary is dying of cancer and hoarsely whispers to her only daughter: "Mattie . . . I want to tell you something." But a nurse bustles in and Mattie decides it's time for a tea break. She will come to regret that cup of tea, for with it she swallows her chance to hear the answer to the mystery that envelopes her - and us - as soon as her mother dies on page three. You know it's a good book when, even on page three, you never want it to end.

It doesn't for another 149 pages, during which Mattie and her boyfriend Bram take us on a magical mystical (well, there is a crystal ball) tour of her mysterious life. Halfway through you don't even know what Mattie's real name might be, never mind her age or who her grandparents or parents were. And who are the ghostly people she keeps seeing?

This is a first-rate mystery and the only one of the four books to receive a four-star rating from my resident 13-year-old. "It's well good. Compulsive, " was her verdict. And it is: a page-turner with great plotting and a sensitively drawn love portrait.

The Shadow of August also has something that makes for a theme among these books: a family that would make Conservative Central Office wince and the Daily Mail positively fulminate. Mattie is an only child who barely questions her mother's assertion that she was the result of a holiday one-night stand.

The heroine of Jean Ure's Has Anyone Seen This Girl? seems to have postcard parents - archaeologists who communicate with their 14-year-old by sending the briefest of messages to her boarding school. Caroline does have a grandmother, though one who just happens to be a well-known actress.

This book is Caroline's diary, and a more matter-of-fact 14-year-old you are unlikely to meet. This is her entry about half-term: "Gran rang this evening to say that, alas, I will not be able to spend half term with her as she is going to be in Malta! They are doing some filming out there and have a very tight schedule . . . That is a pity as I should very much like to go to Malta. But, as Gran says, that is showbiz for you."

Such a lack of supervision does make for more opportunities for adventure,of course, and Caroline visits Rachel whom she had befriended on her first day. That was before Caroline realised that Rachel was the school outcast - a lonely, jealous girl whose secrecy is nearly as great as her musical talent. The visit reveals Rachel's family: a mother who seems mentally ill and a grandmother whose overbearing behaviour provides a clue as to why.

Caroline struggles to be some sort of friend to Rachel while also becoming closer to Fawn, the most popular girl in school. Every reader will recognise this dilemma and also share Caroline's guilty horror when Rachel runs away from school.

The heroine of Hannah's Ghost is far less sophisticated: a lonely 10-year-old with an absent-minded father (this time there is no mother) and a rampant imagination. Her ghost, Morphy, is also lost and this story - which I found to be the weakest of the five - revolves around Hannah trying to find a home for Morphy and a friend for herself.

The heroines of Jacqueline Hyde and Sea Change are lonely too but, in plots that will strike a chord for many, try to find the antidote in a bottle. For the eponymous Jacqueline, it is a mysterious one that she finds in her grandmother's attic, one sniff and she finds herself transformed from a goody-goody to a brave, cheeky bad girl. For Theresa in Sea Change, the contents of the bottle are the more familiar lager, cider, gin or whisky. At 16, she is in deep trouble. As her mother asks: "Have I now got an alcoholic as well as a shoplifter for a daughter?" When sober, both Theresa and Jacqueline must face up to less than perfect family lives (no surprise there) with Theresa's divorced parents both remarried and Jacqueline's too busy running their shop to find much time for her.

Theresa is packed off to her father's in Cornwall, where she begins to learn to cope without a nip from the bottle. Jacqueline, however, has trouble finding the right path and ends up "making baskets" and saying "maybe the therapy's working".

Jacqueline Hyde has by far the most ambitions, the consistent efforts to draw parallels with R L Stevenson's tale embellishing a relentless moral message. This is only partly successful, however - at times the tone rings false.

Can it be a coincidence that in the case of both Theresa and Jacqueline, a grandmother is a girl's best friend? Daily Mail take note. Even in the world populated by these mixed-up young women, all is not lost if there are still a few good grandmothers about.

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