Power and Chaos
Random House, $14.95,
The Wave Rider
A Whistle from the Blunder
About once a year – normally in April-May, just after the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – various people get up on their hind legs and accuse our writers for children and young adults of sullying kids’ innocence. It’s usually done with the best of Western middle-class intentions, and it nearly always starts from the premise that young readers inhabit an innocent, pre-lapsarian world, whose borders all responsible adults must defend.
Such an attitude would be amusing if it weren’t insulting. It’s the attitude of any powerful group reluctant to share its power with anyone else. It’s not really the hypothetical innocence of children that such complainants want to preserve. It’s their ignorance.
John Marsden puts it neatly: “Protection is the oldest form of repression.” And the reaction of most self-appointed guardians of innocence to writers who dare show young readers unpleasant truths – and empower them in the process – is to accuse these writers of moral turpitude or “politically correct agendas”. Watch for that last phrase from critics of children’s books. It’s a sure sign of cerebral anaemia.
So what unpleasant truths, moral flaws, PC agendas and far more important features does this quartet of indigenous YA novels contain?
One of the more intriguing mixtures comes in Paula Boock’s Power and Chaos. It was Boock, you may remember, who sent Christian Heritage’s Graeme Capill into Old Testament frothings when her Truth, Dare or Promise, a loving, life-affirming story of a teenage lesbian relationship, won the NZ Post Supreme Award in 1999.
At first, Power and Chaos seems a sideways step from the contemporary urban realism of Boock’s previous novels. Then you realise it shows the same skills and similar themes in different gear.
The story starts from TV’s The Tribe (“cult programme … massive fan base”), which you don’t need to have seen. “Don’t expect one of those fruity teenage books with a happy ending,” warns Martin, the protagonist. Sound advice: this is a perfunctorily futuristic society where college students have school access codes imprinted on their shirts, and where there’s the odd reference to artificial surrogacy.
It’s also a world where most adults will soon be dead. Not dead useless or dead ignorant as they too often are in YA fiction, but victims of a mystery virus. Scorn not the mystery virus, reader: it’s a literary device going back to the Book of Exodus. Here, it’s not really explained, not really plausible, but that doesn’t really matter.
Only adolescents and younger will survive. One result is that by the end of what is obviously Book One in a
series, characters are being saddled with adult rights and roles, and sometimes being forced to say/do some not totally convincing adult things.
People matter as much as plot in Power and Chaos. There are a number of Boock’s characteristically gutsy young women. Males are a touch plywood, but Martin is a good hormonal guy.
The narrative of Apocalypse Soon holds a powerful sense of personal vulnerability and public fragility. Paula Boock does the insidious disease spread and government repression bits well, mainly by half-showing rather than telling. The impact is in the implications, until a fairly florid climax where the teenage tribes of druggies or religious freaks emerge in their feathers, chains and body paint. (OK, it is based on TV.)
Written in an authentic, side-of-the-mouth, designer-laconic teenage argot which the author infuses with energy and pathos, Power and Chaos seems set to be the first step in what could achieve a … well, a “massive fan base”.
In contrast to Boock’s non-specific, near-future world, Graeme Lay and Bernard Beckett set their novels sturdily in the specific present.
Reading The Wave Rider, you can see why Lay wins travel awards. There’s a firm, confident sense of place; details are meticulously rendered. Maybe a bit too meticulously: descriptions of scenery, whether littoral, anatomical or vehicular, tend to slow the narrative pace which matters so much with frisky teenage readers.
We’re in a pseudonymous small North Island surfing town, which neither author nor protagonist likes very much. Kaimara is dull, dull, dull. People’s mouths hang open when they encounter someone different.
Meet Justine, a stuck-up bitch and therefore probably a lezzie, according to resident neanderthals. Justine longs for someone to ride up on a white surfboard and sweep her off to anywhere. When Carl from California arrives with his van and a dimple in his chin, riding the reef waves that nobody else dares try, everything is set for a major disappointment.
Graeme Lay is one of our best male authors at creating convincing young women characters, and Justine is one of the story’s strengths: edgy, idealistic, bolshie when guys assume that only they can talk technical, and still getting over that terrible night at the beach last New Year’s Eve. She comes with a good backing lineup of non-wimpy adults, always a bonus in YA fiction.
The Justine/Carl relationship is authentic and affecting. A pity though that some of the associated prose develops a harlequin hue. A pity too that the author’s voice intrudes: “Unreasonably, she began to blame her father … She nodded, laughing at his logic as well as the word-play.” Carl himself – and it’s unavoidable – stays a beautiful blond blank, inclined to mouth things like “You just have to go with the flow.” The local lads don’t really get beyond caricatures.
The Wave Rider steps steadily along, with nice flicks of thought and language, and a few falterings of the teenage voice (“Twice I have been too trusting, and twice I have been hurt.”). Lay has obviously researched surfing very thoroughly, and though it comes across as research, he whips up some good waves. There are neat secondary mysteries: late in the plot, a second stranger arrives, illuminating the past and rather wandering away from the present.
We’re moved adroitly from one revelation to another. Motifs of transitoriness and trust appear but don’t flaunt themselves. There are agreeably acerbic school scenes – another characteristic of Lay’s fiction. I do wish I’d had a teacher with the impeccable parentheses and subordinate clauses of Mrs Barrington.
Bernard Beckett’s Lester was unlucky not to make last year’s NZ Post shortlist. His second novel comes with handsome, hunky cover art that acknowledges the visual awareness of its reading public. Longacre do their authors proud, though they could have been more severe on the coy author note.
Halfway down its opening page, Red Cliff is already urgent with up-ya-face energy and alienation. When apprentice arsonist Samuel is treated like a 40kg weakling on his first day at a new school, and then glimpses the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen, it’s pretty clear what two of the plot threads will be. But there’s more here than Beauty And The Least; by the third page, we get Samuel’s diary, “all part of the deal …with Mum and Dad and the Children and Young Persons Services.”
Then Uncle Neil gives him a body-building book for Christmas. He starts to shape himself, body and life. It’s not funny. Rather, it’s not only funny. It’s also brave and pathetic, and Beckett treats it with respect.
Events are narrated partly by Samuel, partly by Third Person, partly by Carissa, who has a mind as sharp as her cheekbones. The switches work well, though a few times they become lurches. Every kid in the story has problems, mostly spelt “I-M-A-G-E” or “P-A-R-E-N-T-S”, and they’re anatomised by the complex, credible Samuel, who observes, conspires and manipulates in a manner you’ll recognise and sympathise with.
There aren’t any easy answers in Red Cliff. Those bad-mannered unpleasant truths keep appearing. Life and families are combat zones, with occasional respectful or exhausted truces. Maurice Gee would recognise Beckett’s world: “one hint of a man down, and everybody’s there, having their turn”. Occasionally you feel it might have been better if the number of parental stuff-ups were reduced; they risk turning the book into a parade of grotesques.
The ending has the same cram of tension and danger as Lester, and the same problems. It sits at a slightly skewed angle to the rest of the plot; it tears past more hastily than it should, to a self-conscious epilogue again reminiscent of Beckett’s first novel.
But once more, he’s made an outstanding job of showing the power and potential of adolescents: the physical and emotional wallop they carry. Suddenly the narrative jumps up and surges forward with Carissa or Samuel’s sheer excitement at what they can do to the world. Other times, it flashes with the panic of being an outsider: “that creep, the zombie”. Along with this goes the dialogue. Beckett captures all the crackle and slap of teen-talk (though a couple of times he lets it swell till it’s Dawson’s Creek rather than Red Cliff).
There’s good use of the gap between pose and actuality, and there’s a balance which comes from ensuring that even beastly buffed Kurt has something resembling a redemptive moment. The odd event and character go a pratfall too far: Samuel hiding under Carissa’s bed; the loathsome Uncle Mitchell, who leaves a slime trail when he moves. But I’m picking that Red Cliff will have made a short list by the time you’re reading this.
Boock in the future; Lay and Beckett in the present. It’s nicely symmetrical that Diana Noonan’s short novel A Whistle from the Blunder should draw so much on the past.
Candice, “nearly 13”, is staying in the closely-observed NZ countryside with Uncle Ralph, who chucks his wet socks in the oven, and Aunty Liz, who rules straight edges around her world. Life in Burchfield can seem a tad brochure-idyllic, with brown chooks on gravel road and an old identity playing piano accordion. But the area is in convincing decline. Only the odd tourist bus brings income to a place where the railway once was an artery. The station is now a Tea Rooms and Gift Shop. The last station master still withers in blighted, boozy retirement nearby. Candice’s rellies live in his old house. And … and Candice starts to hear a ghostly train whistle.
So we have puzzle and ambience, a range of possibilities that fascinate and frighten. Noonan takes trad mystery trappings – old photo; older recluse; dark, overgrown cutting; darker local mutterings – and structures them competently. Alongside them, another level builds. There are themes touching on the importance of imagination; the essential, edgy balancing act between reality and fantasy; the evasiveness of everyday things. There’s also a neat, unlaboured acknowledgement of economic survival versus commercialisation.
Guilt carried for 50 years blends with a sudden contemporary crisis. History seems about to repeat itself horribly. A flat-out climactic sequence where mind and body blur leads to a denouement which could have been a few pages shorter.
Setting matters enormously in Diana Noonan’s fiction. It shapes events and relationships; its rhythms move through the prose. Occasionally, like Graeme Lay, she leaves the narrative for a paragraph or two, and heads off to acknowledge the background. Be patient: place and plot become increasingly inseparable.
As always, Noonan writes quietly and attentively, with just a few surplus adverbs/adjectives. Pace is steady; direction is never cluttered. Events take a while to lift up their knees and run, and you can often see what’s going to happen half a page ahead. That doesn’t matter. Here’s a professional, deftly using her techniques.
A Whistle from the Blunder is populated by wholesome country folk: conservative, courteous, careful. The author conscientiously adds a few dashes of enmity, but it’s not really her thing. Clashes have a conscious quality, though Candice throws a good hissy-fit, and there’s a nice prickle between her and a TV producer.
A Whistle is commendable also for the way it makes an emblem out of the unglamorous. I vowed I’d never say that an author has brought history alive, but that’s precisely one of the things Diana Noonan has done here. Good on yer, as they’d no doubt say in Burchfield.
David Hill’s latest Young Adult novel is Afterwards (Mallinson Rendel).
Jane Westaway comments on the phenomenon of Young Adult fiction below.