Under their skin, the lady is a hit

Nic Barnard

PROOF copies of Melvin Burgess's controversial new novel Lady: My Life as a Bitch caused a stir in metropolitan circles.

Publishers rubbed their hands in glee and newspapers leapt at the chance to run silly season stories condemning its salacious content.

But the buzz in London was nothing compared to that in Northumberland. And the bad news for moral guardians everywhere is that it is an uncontested hit.

At least, that is the verdict of the LitCritters, a group of students at Cramlington community high who are developing a niche as the nation's foremost teenage book critics. They seem fully aware of the effect Burgess has on the older generation.

"Edgy, up-front and in-your-face as ever," wrote Sammy Dobson in Year 10 after reading the proof. "Melvin's out to shock (the adults!) again but gets under teenagers' skins."

Critics have suspected that Burgess was too keen to trump his last novel, Junk, the powerful, award-winning tale of teenage heroin addicts which caused controversy with its refusal to provide easy answers.

And for all the fears that teenagers will be seduced into underage sex by this new tale of a girl who finds herself transformed into a bitch on heat, students at Cramlington are receptive to its moral undertones.

"It's about more than sex," wrote Sam Brown in year 11. "It's about life, the life you make for yourself and others make for you and the way you choose to live it."

She added: "Sandra (the main character) has got a perfect teenage perspective. Just how does Melvin know?" LitCritters are on the shadow voting panel for the Carnegie prize, the children's Booker. The Year 9, 10 and 11 pupils number only around 20, with a fairly even mix of boys and girls, but their enthusiasm has infected the school. The anticipation of a new Burgess novel matches that of a new Radiohead album.

"It's a culture that's spreading," said Eileen Armstrong, head of learning resources. Book deliveries lead to the sound of ripping paper as they fly out of boxes, and the library has got through 30 copies of Junk. The books keep mysteriously disappearing.

Students praised Lady for its true-to-life dialogue and for talking to teenagers instead of at them. Kirsty Blewitt, also of year 11, called it "a real reading revelation - a book written just for me and my friends, and teenagers everywhere, about the things we're going and growing through, but not in a preachy, patronising, let's-talk-down-to-the-teenagers kind or way.

"Melvin's got it, and us, sussed."

The last word goes to sixth-former Graeme Clark: "This is one severely twisted story ... but it works."

Review, Friday magazine, 20

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Nic Barnard

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