Sparrow (by Veronica Heley)

I had never heard of Veronica Heley. This is slightly surprising, since she seems to have been a prolific writer of children's and teenage fiction over about forty years; she is now in her 80s.

I happened to spot one her her early novels, 'Sparrow', at a friend's house. I picked it up out of mild curiosity, and skimmed the first couple of pages; I was completely hooked by the end of the first chapter. I assume that it was intended for older children or young teenagers: it features a 14-year-old girl called Vivien who is hit by a terrible tragedy on the first page. Her previously ordered and contented life falls apart and she finds herself having to adapt quickly to noisy siblings, a shared bedroom, a huge comprehensive school, and the potential for remedial classes... without any opportunity to continue with her beloved music.

The plot is perhaps over-simplistic and somewhat predictable. Vivien struggles enormously; these days she would have some kind of counselling, I imagine, but in this book she is thrown right into the fray, and expected to adjust rapidly. Her life at first becomes completely overwhelming, as she has to learn to deal with endless noise and demands at home, unpleasant teachers and jeering students at school. I thought this was dealt with realistically, and although it seemed to miss out on the depths of grief that would be expected, I found myself empathising quite strongly with Vivien.

Since this is - in a low-key way - a Christian book, Vivien finds that things start to get better when she thinks about God and starts praying. I thought that this was nicely done, without being twee or preachy. It also doesn't make the mistake of producing changed circumstances overnight, or any kind of miracle; instead, she starts to change inwardly and to see things from other people's perspectives. Perhaps there are slightly too many positive circumstances that come one after another, as she herself sees things differently, but then it's a very short book - less than 100 pages.

Vivien's siblings are somewhat caricatured, I suppose, although we get to know the twins, known as the Toads, towards the end. Some of her new teachers are depressingly awful, but they are over-worked and stressed, and there is one in particular who I liked very much. I couldn't really believe in the dreadful piano teacher, but she was so bad as to be quite amusing. And even in such a short book I built up quite a good picture in my mind of this frightened, stubborn and angry teenager who has to learn in a short space of time to overcome terrible sadness and adjust to new and difficult circumstances.

Discussion of O levels and CSEs dates this; but the issues are quite relevant to older children or young teens of any generation, the writing is good, the story fast-paced. Once I'd started, I could barely put it down.

Long out of print, but perhaps available second-hand.

Review copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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