Review Blog

Dec 03 2010

Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess

cover image

Puffin, 2010. ISBN 9780141316338.
(Ages 16+) Recommended. Melvin Burgess has always pushed the boundaries in his writing. When he won the Carnegie medal for Junk in 1996 it made headline news, hardly surprising as it represented such a seismic shift in literature for young people. Subsequent novels also roused strong opinions, and Nicholas Dane will be no exception.
Set in the 1980s this is the harrowing story of Nick whose mother dies of a heroin overdose and who finds himself at the tender mercies of a group of so called teachers (all inadequate, bullying torturers) at a children's home. Burgess does not hold back. Details of child sex abuse, the skewed and damaged thought processes of paedophiles, the physical and emotional torture of children, drugs, prostitution and armed robbery all figure in this compelling novel.
Melvin Burgess is a genius at painting pictures with words. (I still shudder when I picture one of the characters in Junk cradling her baby while she injects heroin). This is an even tougher subject to write about for young people, and the line between adult and young adult is very hazy indeed. It is exceptionally well written; perhaps the only way Burgess could successfully handle such horrific storylines was to adopt a clinical almost documentary approach. Of course this factual style simply serves as a reminder that this story is embedded in the horrific experiences that real children endured at the hands of the so called care system.
The trauma that Nick and his friends Oliver and Davy experience is hard to believe. Nick is a tough character and Burgess does not dwell in huge detail regarding the emotional cost of his abuse, but it's there in his attempts to blot out the horror with drugs and alcohol and in his total inability to build successful relationships. Oliver is perhaps the most tragic character. Groomed by paedophiles since a young age, he knows no other form of affection. The fact that he disappears and Nick fails in his attempts to find him leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions - lost in the care system, or murdered by paedophiles? We never find out.
I urge caution in sharing this book with young people. This is HEAVY reading, perhaps best adopted by a reading group, where the traumatic events can be chewed over and discussed. I haven't read anything as harrowing or deeply affecting since We Need to talk about Kevin, but of course that was written for adults.
Claire Larson

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