If Dickens was around today what social issues would he be writing about? If he were a children’s author would he shy away from the controversial subjects or tackle them head on?
Melvin Burgess writes teenage fiction and sees himself in the tradition of social realism epitomised by Dickens. His previous books – including Junk, Doing It and My Life As A Bitch, deal with drugs, sex and sexism respectively.
His great talent as an author is to be able to write convincingly from the perspective of a teenager.
Burgess’s latest book is in the same vein but deals with an even more sensitive and painful issue – namely sexual and physical child abuse.
Nicholas Dane is an ambitious attempt to update Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Set in Manchester in the 1980s, the novel is about a troubled, but mostly typical, teenage boy whose mother dies from a heroin overdose.
Social services send Nicholas to a monstrous and brutal children’s home. He is mercilessly beaten until being rescued by a kindly headmaster – a figure of trust who later grooms and abuses him.
Nicholas is trapped, isolated and almost destroyed. The rest of the book deals with his attempts to escape and roughly follows the plot of Oliver Twist.
Burgess says the idea for the novel came to him when he was considering the violent and brutal character of Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. It occurred to him that Sykes had probably been viciously abused as a child.
This attempt to explain how people can become trapped in the horrible cycle of violent abuse is one of the strongest parts of the novel.
The issue is dealt with in a empathetic way, allowing us to understand not only the powerful and disturbing mixed emotions felt by the victims at the time of their abuse, but also the devastating effects on them in later life.
In one memorable passage Burgess describes how a victim managed to block out the horror of abuse by imagining there was a switch in his head “which he clicked… and none of it was happening, or had happened or ever would happen again… It was a neat trick that served him well enough then, although in later years, when he started to form proper relationships, it broke the heart of whoever came near him.”
Overall the book is powerfully and sensitively written and the young characters are deftly and sympathetically created. Unlike Dickens, Burgess is not trying to expose the hidden sores of contemporary society. The book is set 20 years in the past and allows teenage readers to begin to understand the phenomenon of child abuse.
There has been some controversy about Nicholas Dane with some educationalists suggesting that the subject matter may be to painful and complex for a teenage audience. I think they’ve got it wrong.
Too often we underestimate the ability of young readers to get to grips with emotional issues. It is part of the process of maturing to develop an ability to empathise and deal with difficult emotions.
We serve an ill purpose when we try to shield children from this sort of reality. After all, what is being described here is already a painful reality for many of them.
Teenagers are surrounded by violent images and narratives which are all too often covered in a saccharine coating – portraying the violence in society but completely failing to contextualise it.
As readers they want to understand the world and crave a rational explanation for the horrible events such as the killing of Baby Peter and the abduction of Madeline McCann. But they are given are few opportunities to do this.
Before recommending this book, I would add just one note of caution. Burgess suggests that Nicholas Dane should not be read by anyone under 14. I would not necessarily agree.
It is not the physical age of the reader that matters so much as their emotional maturity. However, there is a question about what support should be available to young readers tackling traumatic and difficult subjects.
I think that his book ought to be in our schools where teachers can use the experience of reading what is a heart breaking, but worthwhile, depiction of what can be a very brutal world.
Dave Davies is an English teacher in east London
Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess is available from Bookmarks, £12.99. » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk