Out there in the big wide literary world there seems to be a heavy emphasis on discovering refreshingly different adolescent narrators in fiction, usually slightly left of field, helps to be disturbed and male and preferably a good match for Salinger's Holden Caulfield who seems to be held up as the bench mark. I'm thinking way back on here to King Dork by Frank Portman then to God's Own Country by Ross Raisin and that more recent read John the Revelator by Peter Murphy.
Perhaps it's time to hear it for the disturbed girls, except suddenly I can't think of a bench mark disturbed adolescent girl to advance as a shining example.
There must be plenty, surely?
No worries, enter True Murder a novel by Yaba Badoe and Ajuba, the eleven-year old Ghanaian girl abandoned at a Devon boarding school by her father as he pursues a new life after the traumas of Ajuba's mother's mental illness. Much of that mental illness shrouded in mystery and African culture with a child's perception of the person she adored compensating wildly for the increasingly bizarre behaviour and as children are wont to do with little knowledge of what may pass for acceptable or appropriate.
I'm reminded of that lovely little boy in Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans, and I am sure there are more books like this which look at children coping with adults and some form of psychiatric problem. It's a fruitful subject but first know your child and Yaba Badoe gets into the heart and soul of Ajuba the novel's narrator. Had I been less engrossed as I read I may have been pondering James Wood's 'reliable v unreliable narrator' or combination of both but as it is none of that happened until I had turned the final page.
With her limited half-knowledge of what has really happened back in Africa it is fortunate that the school is run by the Derbys a largely unsung couple who quietly hover in the background of Ajuba's life offering her the stability, love and support that the breakdown of her family has deprived her of.
When Polly Venus arrives at the school like a tornado from the US bringing with her armfuls of True Murder detective magazines, a macabre obsession with crime, and murder and death in particular begins. The discovery of some tiny wrapped skeletons in the attic of Polly's house is all it takes to fuel the girls on their own trail of detection and discovery.
What they unearth proves to be far more than they bargained for as they discover more than they ever realised about themselves and others, whilst Ajuba, with so much love to give bestows it with caution and reluctance but then with an intensity borne of inexperience and need and tragedy beckons.
I'm sorry if I say it too often but here's another book I just could not put down.
Gripping from page the first and probably exactly what I needed to read at that moment in time.
Yaba Badoe has perfectly captured the confusion of the pre-adolescent girls, still children, on the cusp of womanhood, the dysfunctional families, the insidious threat of unchecked paranoia and trust me the ending will leave you gasping. The subtle hints throughout the book that something else is due to happen may have slipped my mind as I approached the final pages but ...
I find myself mystified by the brief review in last Saturday's Guardian which felt 'the writing was uneven and the plot failed to convince' when I had it down as a brilliant debut novel and an ending which certainly convinced me.
True Murder published by Jonathan Cape deserves to do well and I really hope it does.