On the side of life, David Hill

Dare, Truth or Promise
Paula Boock
Longacre, $14.95,
ISBN 1 8771 35 08 9

The Family Album
Helen Beaglehole
Cape Catley, $1 6.95,
ISBN 0 908561 58 X

The Whole of the Moon
Duncan Stuart
Longacre, $14.95,
ISBN 1 8771 35 05 4

Ticket to the Sky Dance
Joy Cowley
Viking, $24.95,
ISBN 0 670877 33 6

Early in Paula Boock’s award-winning Out Walked Mel, a Minister of Education visits the protagonist’s classroom. The toothily-smiling Minister (any resemblance to a previous incumbent is not coincidence) moves around, bestowing banalities. When he condescends to Mel, she loses her precarious cool and tells him to “piss off”.

In manuscript form, she’d told him to “f– off”. Boock had the word in full, the wimpy version here is mine. Negotiations between publisher and author followed, till Boock reluctantly agreed to tone down the four explosive letters. She’d wanted the epithet that would encapsulate Mel’s personality, mood and situation, and would mark this moment as a crossing of boundaries. The publishers worried that reactions would focus on that one word, not on the other 26,000 in the novel.

What’s significant is not that Paula Boock wanted the word, but that she’d thought hard and long before choosing it. Authors are usually their own strictest censors, constantly balancing, selecting, rejecting. But they’re always under fire, especially if they write for teenagers. At least once a year in New Zealand, someone urges that our books for young adults be censored.

I accept that many people who want such limitations are motivated by love and protectiveness. I accept that the young adult writing scene needs disapproving voices. Authors – like teenagers – take risks and test limits. There have to be speed humps. But some pro-censorship arguments seem fearsomely flawed.

We’re told of the need to protect children’s innocence. Innocence? When US author Judy Blume wrote Starring Sally Friedman, she received hate mail from 9-year-olds addressed to JEWdy Blume. Children are innocent inasmuch as they’re unaware and inexperienced. They don’t possess some mythical virginal virtue which literature must never be allowed to sully.

Along with the Innocent-Kids argument goes the Parental-Duty argument. I’m delighted to hear parents acknowledge their duties. Might those not include helping children develop their own censorship skills?

We’re told “My kids don’t think like that…My kids don’t want to read this.” Fine – but largely irrelevant. How about other kids who do think like that? Why should they be denied the reassurance of realising they’re not the only one in the world who faces their problem? And we hear that There’s A Time And A Place. Quite true, and books build bridges between times and places, while censors drive wedges between them.

Which brings us back to Boock. Dare, Truth or Promise, her fourth novel for young adults, is a novel of gay teenage love and sexuality. Out walk Willa and Louie, as endearing, oblivious, vital and vulnerable a pair of earthly creatures as you’ll find in the decade’s teenage fiction. Louie quotes G M Hopkins, never stops talking, can sound like the Drama Prefect from Hell. Willa is “all flame and fury”, electric with intensity, threatening a slimy male’s dangly bits with a kitchen knife.

Their courtship is so wide-eyed, you can’t help grinning. They go for drives, hold hands, share long silences. Willa has a dark and rather anti-climactic secret. There’s a marvellous scene where they take on Dunedin Airport’s safety regulations. A parent-forced separation, a series of protracted crises, and finally a wounded but hopeful ending comes in sight. “It’s not easy being gay”, realises Louie’s Mum, with a nod to Kermit.

Change “she/her” to “he/him” half the time, and there’d be no objections to this novel. The sex scenes are tender and sensuous, except when they lurch into jolly dorm romps. The book is warmed and lifted by love and an assertion of the value of human feelings. It’ll be a poor spirit who complains about the gay theme.

Characterisation is confident and convincing, though most males are peripheral, pathetic or predatory. Parents are depicted with respect, they’re as caring and irrelevant as they are in most adolescent lives. Boock writes clean springy prose with just a few wobbly sentences and the odd homeless image. She keeps eyes and ears wide open for little felicities. What is “sexual targa”? Answer: the geographic region south of Dunedin. She’s strong on set-piece scenes, like the school production of Twelfth Night which becomes a metaphor for Willa and Louie’s concealments, or the family dinner where jokes can’t remove the threat to jugulars.

Its emotional veracity, rather than any PR quacking about “first of its kind in NZ”, makes Dare, Truth or Promise a book which well deserves to rank among award-winners in 98. That, and its pride in people and places and its welcome absence of smugness or sermonising. Let’s hope it gets treated with matching respect.

Maurice Gee says of adult fiction, “The … story is supreme”. It’s even truer of young adult fiction, where readers have the temerity to expect a plot. They get a strong, orthodox plot in Helen Beaglehole’s The Family Album. They also get another engaging lead in the form of Anna, grudgingly leaving Wellington for a spell in the South Island’s Wild West.

Grim Gran and ineffectual Uncle Barry are preparing for the former’s move from family home to institutional home. Alma helps them, still grudgingly, while getting used to farm macrocarpas, farm breakfasts, and a farm horse who lives life in the slow lane. Enter Jamie. A rather fetching, rather stilted relationship develops between him and Anna. It’s not always easy to believe that these are teenagers talking, and the sexual electricity takes a while to climb beyond brown-out level. Enter also agreeable Gothic bits: a face at a derelict cottage window; the photo album of the title, with whole pages cleared of their contents.

A voice from 80 years ago speaks. It’s powerfully evoked, but awkwardly connected at first. Then, through various youthful battles towards liberty/ equality/ maternity, a neat network spreads across four generations. There’s a danse macabre of skeletons bounding from cupboards, and a number of set speeches on Life, The Universe and Most Things, the general consensus being that folks should stick together.

Beaglehole is good at recognising and inducing promising elements. She’s not quite so good at recognising what to leave out. The Family Album is a crammed story that threatens to become cluttered. Not till the final pages does pregnant friend Chris back in Wellington become more than a side issue. It’s a novel where the physical setting is solid and immediate – the rawness, rivers and rain of the West Coast are faithfully realised. There’s also lively use of dialogue, both exterior and interior, though I don’t believe a 1990s Wellington teenager could say “Gosh!” and live. The style is more conservative than Boock’s, treading rather than leaping. A book to reward the attentive reader, and one that might have benefited from less matter and more art.

There’s abundant matter and art in Duncan Stuart’s The Whole of the Moon. No tear-duct is left unpressed in this novel from the film (a Major Film, inevitably). Love Story comes to Starship Hospital. Kirk has searing speed around the skating rink, a Dad who owns a big boat, a “lush” girlfriend, Tory, who lives in a North Shore house of glass and steel. It’s very Auckland: the right place-names and brand-names are dropped. Kirk hurts his leg fooling about, and the fun fades. Routine X-rays reveal a bone tumour. Suddenly Kirk is in a ward of bald-headed kids: Owen the Terrible, the young chess fanatic; Stevie with wig and guitar.

And Marty, the “ghost who walks”. Marty’s a risk: she doesn’t appear till the book is 40% over, and when she does, she’s a melodramatic figure who looks like a princess, sounds like a ghoul, and is scarred by a terrible past. Compelling dark angel she may be, but she stays stagey.

The disbelief and terror of Kirk and his parents, plus the fallibility of friends, are well rendered, though there’s a good deal of awkwardness with Tory, who’s flicked off, along with her diary, halfway through. The exclusivity of the cancer ward – “it’s like I’ve joined a club” – is also rendered clearly and compassionately.

Stuart writes with energy and empathy, capturing the offhand power of teenspeak, the zip-zap of its dialogue. Quips and comebacks twang past. Curiously, the reverse side of twangy-tough seems to be schmalzy-soft: “their eyes, their sad sunken eyes”; “I know how it feels to lose every hope in the world”. Every too often the novel stops and goes for a paddle in treacle. When Kirk and Marty finally make love, it’s on an island under the stars.

There are other stumbles. Scenes which no doubt looked great on-screen (Kirk trying to skate again; the parapet-balancing; the final episodes in night-club or holiday home) seem overwrought, even a bit silly, when they appear in the cold black of print. Against these can be set other, excellent moments (Kirk at home with parents; in the store with Marty). The medical minutiae of CAT scans, subclavian injections, ulcerated mouths are casually compulsive. The chapter headings are the year’s best, and the absence of a happy ending is commendable.

This probably went well on film. It doesn’t go badly on the page. But I look forward to seeing what Stuart can do with a story of his own. Joy Cowley, on the other hand, has written another story of her own, and one with an enviable title. Ticket to the Sky Dance has a growing, pressing sub-text of how worldly goods can insulate and corrupt. Its unimpressed account of private enterprise run wild is about as politically incorrect as you can get in a New Zealand piloted by the Shipley of State. It even puts in a plug for organic gardening.

I shouldn’t get flip about this novel. It’s a powerful book with powerful messages and a flat-out plot. It’s set a few decades ahead, when Zeus Boots have replaced Reeboks and police carry electronic notebooks. Conventional futuristic furniture, but it does the job. So, more potently, does the opening image of the young protagonist’s Gran disintegrating in a nursing home while her house is sold to pay medical fees. In the hands of someone like Cowley, fiction has the impact of a dozen polemics.

Twelve-year-old twins Shog and Jancie are pulled from the streets by glacial Dr Frey, a sort of Mrs Darth Vader, who offers riches via the Class Act Modelling Agency. All that’s needed for admission is not to have parents who might want to trace you. Things slow for a while as the evil implications are laid out. Why are there no phones? Why is nobody allowed on the third floor? A few organ notes over-play in the background.

Claustrophobia intensifies. Shog and Jancie seem helplessly outgunned. Astral travelling, industrial espionage, a “top secret laboratory in orbit around Mars” all arrive in the narrative with breath-grabbing speed. The adult cavalry gallop up in a rather gratuitous manner, and there’s a corny, profane, eye-dampening rescue by Heaven’s Grannies. The novel is distinguished by Cowley’s adroit blend of lyrical and laconic – though the out-of-body bits strain as well as extend her writing.

Good adults are Fourth Policeman or Second Foster-Parent. Bad adults meet fates that will satisfy kids’ strong sense of justice, but not till they’ve done a fair amount of cloak-swirling and moustache-twirling: “It is your job to deal with trouble. May I remind you.” The kids’ gullibility and shrewdness, fragility and resilience are vividly evoked. They can be victimised, they can even be killed: Joy Cowley never deceives or patronises her readers. But they can fight, and they can make themselves and their lives better. They’re worthwhile.

People in Cowley’s young adult novels fart and swear and smell, and give other proofs of being human. It means she’ll be banned in some parts of the USA and rebuked in some parts of New Zealand. It means that like the other authors in this review, she’s on the side of life rather than sterility.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer. His young adult novel, See Ya, Simon, recently won Germany’s Silver Pen Award.

Paula Boock ‘s Dare, Truth or Promise won both the senior fiction category and the supreme prize of the New Zealand Post Children ‘s Book of the Year contest, announced on 8 April. Joy Cowley’s Ticket to the Sky Dance won the junior fiction category.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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