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by Alex Wheatle
(Arcadia Books, £7.99)
THIS modern version of a Boy’s Own Story by Alex Wheatle follows convention at one level, with its pacey narrative of four friends who abscond together from their children’s home.
Spurred on by their pledge of loyalty to each other, Bullet, Carlton, Curvis and Glenroy outwit the authorities, face some of their own fears and re-establish, even if only for a while, a measure of control over their own lives.
But Wheatle, with his own experiences at the Shirley Oaks home where sexual abuse allegedly took place, uses the adventure genre to explore and explain the devastating consequences of children brought up in a largely loveless and at times abusive environment.
The book begins in the 1980s, with the opening chapters signalling the whereabouts of each of the boys. Bullet has just left the army, Carlton is in gaol, Curvis attends the funeral of a fifth friend and Glenroy struggles with the debilitating effects of mental illness.
The narrative then reverts to a decade or so previously, as the novel patiently and remorselessly lays bare the grim and brutal facts about Pinewood Oaks.
This is a place of control, where most staff, including the so-called house parents, are bureaucratically indifferent to the young lives in their charge and some are active predatory abusers. Casual racism and limited expectations hem the four boys in, with their future choices whittled away daily. The home is a factory of depravity, designed to sate the depravities of one generation and create the next generation’s underclass.
Yet the book is also about the enduring strength of friendship, the nature of justice and the importance of redemption. The boys are shown to be real people, emerging adults in their own right with a keen sense of right and wrong, even when they are struggling to work out how to apply those insights when few in authority will listen to them.
The four decide upon escape and carefully plan each minute detail, assisted by sympathetic comrades. Their days as refugees from the home are full of wonder and fun but also of reflection and fear. Eventually, an argument sunders the fellowship and they return to Pinewood Oaks with outcomes as justifiable in their origins as they are terrifying in their consequences.
Wheatle writes in an unadorned and realistic style with a keen ear for the natural language of children and young adults. Doubtless, readers will experience a sense of triumph at the strength and solidarity of the survivors and a burning desire to see the many real-life abusers and those who covered up for them brought to justice.
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