Nicholas Dane PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 07 July 2009 14:08

Melvin Burgess

 Nick is fourteen years old, bored with school and often plays truant with his friends. His Mum, who has discovered studying late in life and is now a mature student, does her best for him, but struggles with her own problems. When his Mum dies suddenly, Nick is left in the care of the social services and this is when his nightmare begins. He is taken into a residential care home where he is relentlessly beaten and bullied by the other boys and by the staff. He is kept cold and hungry and, although he hated school before, he discovers that he misses it once he realises how little education there is in the care home. He thinks his life can't get any worse and things seem to be taking a turn for the better when Mr Creal, the Deputy Head of the Care Home, takes him under his wing. However, Mr Creal has other plans for Nick and, after grooming him into submission, repeatedly subjects him to terrible abuse. Despite his massive shame Nick fights back against the system but is disbelieved and labelled a troublemaker. His only hope is to escape but security is tight and he has nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. This is the story of how Nick endures his time in the care home and what happens when he finally gets away. He is not the only boy to have suffered at the hands of Mr Creal and, as he becomes more embroiled in an underworld life of drugs, thieving and crime, old hatreds surface culminating in a bloody climax.

 Burgess is well known for tackling controversial and challenging issues in an unflinching way (see review of Junk by same author) and in Nicholas Dane he confronts child sexual abuse, one of his most difficult subjects yet. He deals with the issue sensitively and manages to portray the horror and the shame as well as the sheer mundane predictability of it. For those unfamiliar with the trajectory of lives damaged in this way, he maps a very clear path of shame, turning to self-hatred and self harm. When no-one believes you and those agencies, such as the police and social services, who are supposed to protect you, are complicit in your abuse, then crime is often the only option. Nick is again left vulnerable to exploitation and becomes drawn into a downward spiral of increasing criminal violence.

  The book is clearly written in homage to Charles Dickens, specifically Oliver Twist. The story is set in the mid 80s but the style of writing makes it seem longer ago and does evoke a Victorian feel. This works well in some characterisations and descriptions for example Sunshine (who is a Fagin like character) and Stella (Nancy) but occasionally this affectation got in the way of the story for me. Mrs Batts the social worker is a grotesque characterisation and wholly believable other than the accent which is written phonetically (and is like no accent I have come across in the North West of England). This is a minor detail but one I found quite distracting when reading. It almost feels as though the subject matter is so distressing that Burgess has used this literary device as a means of providing some distance for the reader. You do not need to be familiar with Dickens to engage with this book but the similarities could provide a useful opening for teachers to compare and contrast Dickens and Burgess. Overall this is a compelling story of how teenage lives can go so very wrong and is highly recommended for older readers.



Guest Reviewer:

Charlotte Revely
Programme Director
National School of Government

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 07 July 2009 14:09 )
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