Thursday 10 June 2010

Review: Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess

When Nick's mother dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the 14 year old is sent straight into a boys' home, where he finds institutional intimidation and violence keep order. After countless fights and punishments, Nick thinks life can't get any worse - but the professionally respected deputy head, Mr. Creal, who has been grooming him with sweets and solace, has something much more sinister in mind. Nick has no choice but to escape. Living on the run, he falls in with a modern Fagin, a cheerful Rasta who fences stolen credit cards and car stereos. The scarring, shaming experience he suffered at the hands of Mr. Creal can never quite be suppressed, and when the old hatred surfaces, bloody murder and revenge lead to an unforgettable climax.

In Junk he tackled teenage drug abuse.

In Doing It he took us into the mind and sex life of a teenage boy.

Now, in Nicholas Dane, Melvin Burgess delivers a book that looks at child abuse and the way in which children were treated in some of the UK's worst care homes during the 1980s. Yes, you would be right in thinking that this is a very difficult subject to tackle in a book aimed at a Young Adult audience, and as with Junk and Doing It there will be many adults out there who feel that young people should be shielded from issues such as this. However, I personally would disagree, and even go as far as to say that due to the masterful way in which Mr Burgess tackles this issue, this book should be on the shelf in every secondary school library in the country. I think we often underestimate the desire many young people in this country have to understand issues such as sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, and so on.

Nicholas Dane is not the kind of book I normally feature on The Book Zone, but when Puffin offered me a copy I read a few reviews and decided that I should give it a try (it has been out in hardback for some time and has just been released in paperback last week). Believe me, for someone who spends a lot of time reading escapist action and adventure stories this book did not make a particularly comfortable read - it is extremely violent in places and the issues of grooming and paedophilia are pretty harrowing. Maybe as someone who works with young people on a daily basis I felt this more deeply than others might, I don't know.

Melvin Burgess claims that the idea for this book came to him when he was thinking about Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and how Bill Sykes is a particularly violent and abusive character. He started to think about how Sykes may have developed that kind of personality, and came to the conclusion that if a psychologist were analysing Sykes' behaviour today then there would definitely be a suggestion that Sykes has been seriously abused as a child. Dickens was not afraid to tackle the issues of the day, but the idea of Oliver Twist being sexually abused? Let's face it, if it was happening in these institutions in the 1980s, it was almost certainly happening in the Victorian era. So what we have here is kind of a modern take on the Oliver Twist story, but pulling no punches. I am no English teacher but I would imagine that this would make a great text for an A level group to read alongside Dickens' classic.

I loved Junk, and found it near faultless. Unfortunately I cannot make the same claim about this book. Whilst some of the characters, and that of Nicholas in particular, are developed incredibly well and with real sensitivity and empathy for the situation they find themselves in (the result, I think, of much discussion with adults who have gone through the care system), however other characters are very much relegated to the side-lines. It is the motivations, and especially the actions (or lack of them) by some of these secondary characters that left me with a number of unanswered questions.

This book is aimed at the 14+ age group, but teachers, parents and librarians should think carefully about this generalised age bracketing; there will be many 14 year olds who will not be emotionally mature enough to deal with the issues tackled in this book, and especially the pretty graphic scenes involving violence and sexual abuse. I am reminded of a student I was Head of Year to many years ago whose parent rang to complain about an English lesson where he and his peers had been shown the film The Others starring Nicole Kidman. This pupil was 12 and therefore according to the film's certification he was old enough to watch the film. However, he then spent the whole of his school summer holiday having severe nightmares - he simply hadn't been emotionally mature enough to cope with that film, which is fairly scary in places.

Nicholas Dane is published by Puffin and is available to buy right now.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this comprehensive and thoughtful review. I am a TL who just had this handed to me with the question 'is this ok to put on the shelf?' My conclusion is I will but with a flag to remind me only for senior kids and even then I think I'll have a discussion at the time with the student about the content so they know what they're in for.