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by Frances Kay

Her work with gypsies, prisoners and children in England and Ireland has informed Kay's narrative about two dissimilar young boys, each from a dysfunctional family, whose behaviour, thought and imagination are the theme of her novel. Her command of dialect inspires her penetrating dialogue; her compassion for children deprived of even the most insouciant parental restraint is pragmatic; and her graphic descriptions of the abnormal life of the unwanted and misplaced are a revelation.

Micka, "a no-good giorgio chavvy" even to the gypsies, has a mam (but no da that he knows of) and a varied collection of half-brothers and uncles. He's been to school, and he can read a little more than his mother, whose neglect of her children is that of an ill-starred and exiguous trollop. Micka's refuge in need from hunger or bullying is Royts Lane, where the travellers settle from time to time. Here he can usually find his friend Bluey (short for Blue Eyes) who lives with his scary old nan, Babs. Babs sits on an old bread box in front of a fire of smashed up doors where she makes tea from a large black kettle resting on the wood of the fire, into which she spits with unvarying accuracy: "the muskras give her gin when she's lelled for choring in the market". Her few remaining teeth are black and when she craps it is discreetly by the hedge, using wet grass as paper. Bluey goes around with the men collecting scrap with the pony and cart. Micka knows Bluey is good at coaxing stuff from people, for all he's so young, and he can catch fish from the river and cook it.

Micka's other friend is Laurie. An only child, born in the street when his mother, who always liked to live dangerously, was knocked down by a motorbike, he has lived up to his unlikely start in life. His mother, Josie, wanted him to be called Shane after a cowboy in a film, but his father, Brian, a university lecturer, liked the name Laurence, and in the end he won, and he insisted that Laurence should go to a state school. But they were probably his last marital victories. Brian and Josie are now separated, and Brian's fatherly duties are curtailed, but Laurie and his education are still among the bones of their contention. Micka and Laurie usually prefer being at their primary school to being at home or hanging about outside McDonalds: they enjoy Miss Glennie reading about boy chimney sweeps. Bluey no longer goes to school at all.

The boys, without guidance or care, begin a dangerous game where the line between fantasy and real life - and, ultimately, death - is increasingly blurred.

Frances Kay is a childrens' playwright who was born in London and now lives in Ireland with her musician husband and their two daughters. Her writing is powerful and deeply affecting, and this unforgettable and very original first novel will haunt the reader for a long time after the final page is turned.

Paula McMaster


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