These two young adult novels are character studies that reveal both the desperation and the potential of the teenage years.
No Alarms is a fast-paced, gripping read, a concentrated piece of social realism with a tough central character. Sharon is the classic disillusioned teenager, trapped in a downward spiral of failure. She lives with her foul-mouthed, seedy mother, Kaz, in a poor part of town where breakfast consists of a cigarette followed by a trip to the local McDonalds. Kaz’s morning greeting sets the scene nicely: “‘I’ll come up there and haul your sorry arse out in a moment.’ Anything God, Sharon would bargain, just don’t let me turn out like my mum.”
It’s easy for Sharon to get into trouble at school. With her bad-girl reputation she quickly bears the blame for any disturbance in class; if teachers give no room for her to back down, she explodes. She finds a possible escape route through a classmate who is into burglary and arson. Hoping that fast money will solve her life problems, she is eventually led into a much nastier crime.
As a high school teacher, Bernard Beckett is all too familiar with alienated teens like Sharon. On Radio New Zealand’s Bookmarks, he commented of his protagonist: “Sharon is an archetype: a very important kid in our society because she represents a failure. School is unable to cope – they don’t have the resources.” Indeed, the classroom scenes are the most convincing, as Beckett deftly shows how exasperating schools can be for both teachers and students who don’t fit the system. Only the feeble, softly spoken school counsellor is a bit of a stereotype and an easy target for Beckett’s satire.
Then a hip new relieving teacher is introduced to represent the human face of teachers. The reliever helps the rebellious kids in the class to express their feelings through writing. For the first time Sharon is able to find a voice for her frustration: “I hate feeling stupid. I hate rules. I hate people who aren’t straight with their friends. I hate people who use words to tangle you up, so you have to cut your way out.”
Disturbing social issues emerge naturally from a focus on one character’s struggle against a bad lot in life. Sharon has an authentic voice, and she is allowed to tell her own story. It’s painful to see her rejecting offers of support from friends and teachers, although we also get flashes of love for her family and a tough spirit. The ending shifts the tone of the novel from rich character study to thriller with sexual blackmail and shocking revelations. As in his other novels, especially the bold Lester (1999), Beckett resists a tidy ending. Ultimately Sharon is left isolated, showing few signs of solving her own problems. She’s reached rock bottom, but manages to finish with an almost positive statement: “I hate people who give in.”
The writer of realistic teenage novels always faces the challenge of how to avoid an overwhelmingly bleak ending. I think it’s important to indicate that there’s some hope for the characters. “Give children no easy answers, but give them possibilities,” said Katherine Paterson, one of America’s strongest writers of teenage realism. I wonder whether No Alarms makes that hopefulness explicit enough for younger readers (the publisher recommends the book for 13 years and over).
There’s plenty to appreciate in Spider, William Taylor’s character study of a young musician. Taylor presents young readers with another 17-year-old living with an unconventional mother, but this teenager is motivated and successful.
Matthew is lean and lanky as a spider and, on the surface, one of the lads: smoking, lusting, and boozing. But he’s also a disciplined and brilliant musician, obsessed with Beethoven and the piano: “I can bash the hell out of those keys with the very best of them when the moment demands – but still without losing the sense of reverence I feel for the instrument.” In a series of rambling internal monologues, Matthew explains how he evolved into this curiously mature teenager. He describes his upbringing as “woman dominated”, being raised by three influential females: his mother, piano teacher and sister.
As the plot builds towards a national piano competition, Matthew provides tantalising snippets about the life of his idol, Beethoven. He shares Ludwig’s passion for music, his vigorous style of playing, and even a similarly frustrating love-life. Matthew’s mates are determined to initiate him (“no-one, but no-one is a seventeen year old virgin”); so they visit a “high class” strip club. Matthew is drooling over a naked dancer when he suddenly recognises her as his mother, making some cash on the sly. The situation is repellent, and the change of tone is jarring, although Matthew confronts his mother with characteristic honesty. He concludes, “I don’t want to go into the morals of it”, but I wished Taylor had explored the ethics of the situation a little further. That classic of teenage emancipation, Looking For Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, has a similar internal monologue, but manages a more in-depth view of teenage sexuality.
The big finale is a $50,000 concert, and it’s a thoroughly feel-good affair as Matthew realises how much he is loved by family and friends. At the end, Spider’s romantic and family problems are wrapped up very neatly, quite the opposite to No Alarms with its unresolved difficulties.
On first reading I found the pace of Spider a little slow and the stripper episode offensive. However, sometimes what is most irritating in a fiction may also be its strength. A second reading revealed these changing tempos had a parallel with musical composition. The challenges in Matthew’s life are like the contrasting movements of a concerto, as he mulls over themes on his journey to adulthood. Speaking of his favourite Beethoven piece, Piano Concerto No 3, Matthew says, “At times it is almost dark, and then … bugger me, the old devil swaps keys completely.” Maybe it would make the perfect accompaniment to this novel.
Raymond Huber is a Dunedin teacher and writer.