Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess

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Nicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Burgess riffs on Oliver Twist in this tale of institutional child abuse. Gritty and uncompromising as ever, Burgess takes a warts and all - and important -look at the failures of state care that has a stronger first half than second.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Puffin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 0141316330

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14-year-old Nicholas Dane is taken into care after his mother, a secret smack head, dies in an accidental overdose. Meadow Hill is an assessment centre, but the truth is that not much genuine assessment is going on. It's a savage, brutal regime and Nicholas fights against it from the start. Eventually, he's taken under the wing of Tony Creal, the deputy head, and the only person in the place who appears to have a shred of common humanity...

... or so Nick thinks.

In reality, Creal is a paedophile and his kindess is simply grooming. After a few nights of fags and booze and cakes and chocolate, Creal assaults Nick. Shocked to his core, Nick attempts to expose Creal. His reward? An horrific weekend of gang rape.

What happens to a child brought up in this environment? What will his or her life be like? Burgess follows Nick for some years following his eventual release, and attempts to show us.

Nicholas Dane is a riff on Dickens's Oliver Twist. But Nick is a very different central character to the angelic Oliver. He's chippy and aggressive and more than willing to fight his corner. Not that it does him much good. The abuse he suffers in the home is made worse through his attempts to defend himself, and readers will see for themselves how hard it is to make an adult life with such a past weighing you down.

The first half of the book - in the home - is the strongest, tightest, most difficult part of the book. The second half plotting gets a little bit lost in following the source material but, this being the redoubtable Melvin Burgess, we don't mind that at all, because it gives us some wonderful characters. The Fagin skit, for example, is Shiner - a middle-aged West Indian dope head and easily as vivid a character as the Dickensian creation.

It's a tough and uncompromising look at a controversial issue, and very contemporary given the recent furore concerning abuse within the Catholic church. It's also very graphic, as we have come to expect from Burgess. He does like to force open our eyes. And kudos to him for that, say I.

My thanks to the good people at Puffin for sending the book.

The Heritage by Will Ashon is a terrifying near-future look at outsourced state care. Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road is a heartbreaking road trip novel that also takes a look at institutional care. Exposure by Mal Peet takes Shakespeare and remoulds it into South America's football scene. You might also enjoy Two Good Thieves by Daniel Finn and Nobody Saw No One by Steve Tasane.

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