Background artiste from 'Better than Stars'

Saturday, 21 January 2012

A Monster of a Book: 'Beast' by Ally Kennen

You will want to read Beast. The reptilian eye staring at you from the cover will make sure of that. In fact, if you like good YA fiction you will probably have read it already. I don't know why I hadn't til now. After all, I saw that cover first of all in a prospectus for the writing MA I was about to take, where Ally is a well remembered past graduate. Like I said, the eye's been watching me. I suppose I knew it had the patience of a crocodile lurking in the shallows. It could wait, because we both knew it was going to get me in the end.

On the face of it, Stephen is everyone's worst kind of disaffected teenager, with a history of crime and antisocial behaviour: twocking, arson, substance abuse. But judgement is impossible, because you are forced to see life from his point of view.You know all about his hopeless background, and the way in which his damaged life has forced him to wall up any capacity to believe in himself or to trust those who try to offer him care.

But this novel is no bleeding heart criticism of social conditions. Whatever your views about young people who kick against society, you have to admit that the dominant problem in Stephen's life is a real one. It's twelve foot long and he's been feeding it a pig a month.

Here lie the reasons for the book's success. For all his apparent faults, Stephen is a totally convincing and thoroughly engaging character. You can't help empathising with him. Having a terrible secret which you feel sets you apart and that can be told to no-one is a normal condition of adolescence, although in most people's experience it's something less alarming than a predatory pet big enough to eat your own father. It's impossible not to admire Stephen's determination and resourcefulness, and the clues are there right from the beginning to his good heart: from his affection for his little brother, through his care for his foster sister's paralytically drunk boy friend, to the fact that he never considered leaving the young crocodile to die when it would have been so much easier to do so.

In a feat of skilful plotting, the book torments alternately with the hope of a better life for Stephen, and the threat of a terrible destiny. As the pressure builds, occasional flashes of desperate humour will make you want to laugh out loud.

In the end, we are convinced that Stephen deserves a a happy ending, but he has to rid himself of the monster first.

Have I stumbled on a metaphor? But that's what's so good about this book. It's as gripping as any young person could wish for, whilst at the same time offering the very best in writing.


No comments: