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Books: A wicked loss of innocence; Child's play descends into horror and violence in this chilling but compelling coming of age tale Deadkidsongs by Toby Litt (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99).

Byline: Andrea Henry

If you're familiar with the stylish, urban crime of Litt's previous novels, Beatniks and Corpsing, both of which focus on murder among fashionable twenty-somethings, Deadkidsongs will come as a surprise.

It's the '70s, school's out for summer, and teenagers Andrew, Peter, Paul and Matthew, aka "Gang", are hanging out. Think Famous Five with lashings of ginger beer and you'd be about right. Only there are four of them, strictly no girls, and innocence is soon to be a thing of the past.

On the surface of it, they're just average kids, and the only thing that sets them apart is an obsessive interest in matters military, which is encouraged by Andrew's dad ("Best Father"). The boys speak in code, wear a uniform - although there's no bright pink mohicans or Crimplene bell- bottoms for this lot - and when there's punishment to be had, discipline is doled out according to the Geneva Convention.

Gang's perversely adult take on life makes some people laugh. But Paul's dad ("Worst Father", thanks to his liberal political views) suspects that there's something more sinister going on. And he's right.

These are boys who still say "Gosh", but think nothing of kicking a rabbit to death. They hate their families, other than Andrew's dad. And although the bond between them is strong they still play on each other's weaknesses. As the cliche goes, with friends like these...

As summer progresses, Litt tantalisingly reveals there's far more to Gang than meets the eye. Their antics go way beyond boys being boys, and concern that they are sometimes a bit wild turns to horror as an undercurrent of evil pushes through to the surface.

It's no mean feat to tell a story through the eyes of children, and Litt handles his characters with skill. The deliberate naivety of his writing- style takes us deep under their skins. Writing from multiple perspectives, it's as though the boys are coming at you from all angles. The effect is that their individual qualities start to blur. In the end it's hard to tell whether any of them have any redeeming features at all.

Deadkidsongs goes from rural idyll to the sort of childhood Jeffrey Dahmer might have had, in 100 pages or less. It's possible to empathise with the boys' typical teenage growing pains, but there's no excuse for what happens next. When disaster strikes one of their number, they plan a deadly revenge.

At the root of it all is a juvenile understanding of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. If only the fittest survive, then the weak must die. The strong Gang will prevail, and God help anyone who doesn't come up to scratch. But instead of revenge being the ultimate in gang bonding, it spells the beginning of the end. Cracks appear in their collective armour. They're no longer happy to obey one leader and play by their own rules. There's in-fighting, power struggles, and a breakdown of acceptable human behaviour along the lines of Lord Of The Flies.

For a while, Litt struggles to hold the attention. For too long, there is just page after page of meticulous groundwork and gentle insinuation. But the slow build-up is worth the wait, yielding a genuinely shocking conclusion.

By bringing to mind the real-life crimes committed by children that have horrified society, and the ease with which childish misdemeanours can become acts of evil, Litt has tapped in to a modern-day horror story that can't fail to send shivers down your spine.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 16, 2001
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