Melvin Burgess is well known for writing about issues that make grown-ups feel uncomfortable. He’s written about sex (Doing It), drugs (Junk) and the pleasures of sniffing dogs’ bums (Lady: My Life as a Bitch). Each time he got so much flak for it that at times people forget that he is also a very good writer. This scenario will repeat itself no doubt with his newest novel Nicholas Dane. The hero of the book, Nick, 14, loses his mother to a heroin overdose and finds himself in Meadow Hill – a care home for boys. Back in 1984 these homes were nothing to do with care. Nick quickly realises what kind of place Meadow Hill really is – it is where you are beaten and abused by both staff and boys. The only ray of light seems to be Tony Creal, a senior member of staff who invites Nick to his home and shows him some affection. This affection, as Nick soon learns, is the prequel to sexual molestation and rape. Nick knows his only way to survive is by escaping.
Nicholas Dane is not an easy novel to read, it makes you cringe again and again because Burgess tells it like it is. This is some of his best writing, born out of a strong belief that this story (based on true facts) needs to be told. The damaging consequences of child abuse are not only revealed via Nick’s story but also through the character of Ben Jones, another victim of Meadow Hill whom Nick encounters after his daring escape. Ben’s hurt and anger are channelled into violence, especially towards those closest to him. Burgess wants to make the point that Nick and Jones’ stories are not just individual mishaps but representative of a gross social injustice and so he chooses to adopt the model of Charles Dickens, who wrote about the fate of poor children in the workhouses of the nineteenth century. Nicholas Dane is loosely based on Dickens’ famous novel Oliver Twist, and introduces updated versions of its characters.
Nicholas Dane is a gripping read, but it is not perfect. Issues have been raised about its problematic female characters and harrowing descriptions of violence and abuse, but most of all its suitability for teenagers has been questioned. I’m personally of the opinion that if some children and teenagers are victimised by those whose job is to care for them, then other, more privileged, teenagers have the right to know about it. I do, however, still wonder what young people will make of this book. If you are under 18 and read this book, do leave a comment!
Recommended by Noga Applebaum
- Oliver Twist – if you haven’t read Dickens’ original novel, on which Nicholas Dane is based, then now is the time. It is not the song and dance and ‘please sir, can I have some more’ number which some assume it to be – Oliver Twist is born at workhouse and the novel follows his adventures through the underworld of Victorian London. It is packed with great and colourful characters that you are unlikely to forget.
- Junk – if you liked Nicholas Dane, you may also want to have a look at one of Melvin Burgess’ best and best-known novels about the ups and downs of drug use.
- Stolen by Lucy Christopher - A first person account of the complex relationship between a girl and the stalker who abducted her.