Anne Fine’s latest novel, Aftershocks (Old Barn Books 277pp £11.99), deals with grief, clashing cultures and the battle between rationality and mysticism in an arresting, sensitive and thoughtful manner. The setting is both unusual and uncertain, appearing to be some time in the near future and perhaps in an alternate universe. Great Britain, it seems, now comprises the Cities, the Central Belt, the High Islands and the Endlands, with the Cities dominating everything else. This all adds to the sense of mystery.
Louie, an intelligent teenager from the Central Belt, has lost his brother Toby in a car accident. The trauma drives a shard through his family, causing his parents to split up and leaving Louie bereft. When his father, an engineer, is invited to inspect an old power plant in the Endlands, Louie goes along for the ride. His sense of alienation is powerfully portrayed.
The Endlands are different. They retain old customs and there are strange statues in the rockfaces. Here, Louie witnesses an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which destroy the local settlements, killing hundreds of villagers. There is no doubt, in this novel, as to the reality of ghosts. They are recorded on video and witnessed by many, from sceptics to believers. They swamp the locality, dripping sea water as they go, gathering at the site of the old power plant. Fine is excellent at creating an atmosphere of creeping dread. The locals have a custom, called Malouy, in which they repeatedly tell stories about the dead in order to quiet them. Louie is tasked with listening to these.
It’s refreshing to read a high-quality book for teenagers that portrays grief in all its rawness: the anger Louie feels towards the driver who killed Toby; the things left unsaid; the burden of listening, again and again, to the horrifying narratives of those who have lost children, spouses and parents. Fine, in evocative, moving prose, shows us that when it comes to mourning, ancient rituals are not to be dismissed lightly. Readers will look over their shoulders as they read and yet finish this book deeply satisfied.
Darren Simpson’s third novel, Furthermoor (Usborne 270pp £7.99), which also concerns the death of a sibling, is set in present-day England, in an area of poverty-stricken tower blocks and dilapidated terraces. Bren’s sister, Evie, a budding engineer, has recently died. As in Fine’s novel, the sudden death of a child causes huge family rifts and has psychological consequences: Bren’s mother buries herself in work; his father edges close to breakdown.
Evie’s interest in clockwork leads Bren to create an imaginary world for himself, which he calls Furthermoor and accesses via a clock belonging to her. Here, Bren can control everything. He creates forests of emeralds and mechanical creatures with jewelled eyes and imagines Evie growing up alongside him, his friend and companion. The downside of this, however, is Bren’s increasing isolation from his peers. He also has to suffer the attentions of a vicious bully, who victimises him at every turn. A new boy arrives at his school and stands up to the bully, but Bren’s life is made worse when the bully seeks vengeance. At the same time, a terrible creature, part crow, part human, starts to stalk Furthermoor, destroying all it touches.
Simpson is a compelling writer, his prose clear and muscular. He is acutely aware of generational behaviours, and of the cycle of deprivation that locks people into delinquency. He also has a marvellous sense of the uncanny: there are hints here of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, as when Bren’s mother and father appear in Furthermoor as clockwork automata. Children of ten and upwards will find much within this involving work to transport them.
Kieran Larwood’s splendid third novel, Carnival of the Lost (Faber & Faber 373pp £7.99), is set in the gloom and grime of an unsentimentalised Victorian London. The Great Exhibition is on, promising gleaming modernity and an electric future, but all around, poverty and neglect stalk the streets and a noisome fog pervades.
But that’s not to say that this is a grim piece of work. Far from it: it abounds with heart, charm and warmth. Sheba, the thrillingly courageous and kind heroine, is covered in hair and can lengthen her nails into claws; seemingly abandoned as a baby, she is exhibited in a low-rent freak show, where she is badly treated.
When she’s taken to London as part of another freak show, her colleagues turn out to be a wonderful group of misfits. They include a giant, Gigantus, a long-armed boy called Pyewacket who claims to be a witch’s familiar, and Sister Moon, a girl from Hong Kong who can see in the dark and move faster than light. There are plenty of lovely touches: Gigantus secretly writes romantic novels about fortune-hunting girls under the name Gertrude Lacygusset and the villainess is called Mrs Crowley – a nod, perhaps, to the ghastly Aleister Crowley.
The plot concerns the disappearance of mudlarks, who are apparently being snatched from the river banks by a bizarre, tentacled sea monster. Sheba decides to investigate and uncovers a conspiracy involving a plan to attack the Great Exhibition itself. There are many suspenseful moments and the threat of danger is tangible.
Sheba eventually discovers the truth about her origins and develops with her colleagues the kind of deep camaraderie that often abides among the unloved and unwanted. This is a riveting story with bite for those of eleven and upwards.