Mort came in from the parlour, wearing a crisp white shirt. Who rang? Wrong number. He stared at me.
He knows I'm lying. And I know the truth about him. Some of it anyway. And he knows I know.
All these secrets, all these lies, in my head, and in Mort's. I hate it. I don't think I'm cut out to be a spy.
If all of the books shortlisted for this year's Clarke Award are, as I suggested in yesterday's post, concerned with fear in some way, Stephen Baxter's young adult-oriented The H-Bomb Girl takes on the king of all twentieth-century nightmares: the short step to oblivion represented by nuclear war. Specifically, the knife-edge episode of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and how easily things might have turned out otherwise.
The H-Bomb Girl of the title - and, through extracts from her diary, sometime narrator of the story - is Laura, a teenager whose mind is on quite different things at the beginning of October that year: her parents' tense separation, moving towns with her mother (from sleepy High Wycombe to diverse, bustling Liverpool) - and, arguably worst of all, starting a new school. Laura, the new girl with the posh (read: southern) accent, fits in about as well as might be expected:
Bernadette prodded her arm. "What you looking at?" This was in Bernadette's thick Scouse, that Laura had had trouble understanding all morning. Wot chew luckin' atts?
That set them off. "Oh, Ai'm saw-rry, Ai'm saw-rry, look at mee, Ai'm the Quee-een..."
Laura is a resilient girl, if a somewhat naive and sheltered one. Like all the best teenage characters in fiction aimed at teenagers, she comes across as more level-headed and reasonable (and, of course, more self-righteous) than most of the adults around her, continually rolling her eyes over some new folly of the emotionally-stunted and just generally weird people who are in charge of her life. But the various pressures of her situation, and the lack of a close friend to confide in, do tell on her, and she tends to keep quiet and hold herself in check; this becomes more pronounced once the plot kicks off and she has to start keeping secrets. Even in her diary, where she expresses her thoughts most openly, without the hesitation she feels among her peers or with her family, her voice is still relatively taciturn, and the deadpan style she sometimes uses there undoubtedly has an element of distancing in it; her first entry, noting the presence of her mother's old friend Mort in the house, reads: "Got out of bed. Found an eight-foot-tall American soldier on the landing."
In addition, she lacks experience and the resultant sympathetic perspective, something that is remedied over the course of the novel. The generation gap, between those who lived through the Second World War and those young enough to have missed it, is a chasm. Adults, to Laura's mind, seem to talk of nothing else. "Everything around you is shaped by the war", her father explains, but this means little to a girl for whom that war is not even a memory. The hopes that her parents' generation had for their post-war babies are crippling, seeming to result only in disappointment as those babies grow up with their own wayward and unappreciative minds:
Her mother snapped, almost tearful, "Why are you always so difficult, Laura? I was younger than you when the war broke out. We all thought we were going to die. You children, the first to be born after the war, were precious. Can't you see that?"
Laura stood up. "But there's nothing I can do about it, is there? It was all over before I was born!"
Baxter captures this strange nostalgia for a time of suffering, and its incomprehensibility to outsiders, very well. Laura's mother, in particular, we get the impression, has never been quite so happy as she was during the war (a happiness stemming, of course, from her own limited perspective at the time):
"And whenever there wasn't a raid, in the dark - the blackout, you know - we'd go crazy. No rules! We'd dance and dance. [...] The Americans in town, you know, with their chocolate and cigarettes and stockings. No rationing for them! It was all terribly glamorous, really... Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I'm just thinking that if I went with soldiers like that you'd murder me."
"Yes, well, you're you and I'm me, you're just a little prig and I was mature for my age. You know what I think? I think you're jealous. Jealous because you live in this drab time, when everything is boring and rubbish. Jealous, because you were born too late."
Maybe, Laura thought. For sure, if war came again, there wouldn't be much dancing.
Within a few days of her arrival, Laura has drawn a group of fellow misfits about her: Bernadette, whose tough exterior hides a difficult home life, helping run the household for a frequently drunk mother; Joel, a brainy liberal and the only black kid in the school; and sardonic, slightly older Nick, a singer in a band who was thrown out of the Army before his National Service was over (he got beaten up for failing to hide the fact that he was gay, and labelled a troublemaker as a result). At times the characters feel too much like sketches of people, assemblages of teenage issues - even if the issues explored are admirably adventurous for such a novel - and teasing banter, but their experiences feel real even if their individual personalities are less so: clubbing together their meagre change for a single, shared espresso; chatting with Nick through the school gate; sneaking out of their homes behind their parents' backs; investigating mysteries and banding together against unreasonably authoritarian teachers like Miss Wells.
Through Nick and Bernadette, Laura is introduced to the fringes of the fledgling Liverpool music scene. The latter, at this stage, seems to consist mainly of a makeshift coffee bar in someone's garage, and packed gigs in school halls and mucky cellars, but the raw energy - especially to someone new to the experience, like Laura - is clear:
The sound was huge, and it just walloped out of the big speakers on stage, so loud the walls shook, and bits of white paint drifted down from the roof, like snow. Laura had never heard anything like this before. It was music transformed into a battering ram. She was electrified.
Alongside the growing pains of adolescence lies the altogether darker shadow of the nuclear threat, although for most of the novel it is framed by Laura's experiences and feelings rather than the other way about. Laura's father is in the military - for much of the story, he is just a voice on the phone, speaking to her from an army base - and he explains, after some initial resistance, the situation in Cuba. He explains to her what a nuclear war will be like:
"It took us years to slug that one [WWII] out to the finish. Now we have intercontinental missiles and high-altitude bombers, and a war could be fought out in days - hours, even. It won't even be _like_ a war. It will be like a great shining lid slamming down on us all."
He has entrusted her with "the Key", a metal tag bearing a code that he tells her she must quote to the authorities in the event of war breaking out. Before long, various authority figures of dubious motives begin to try to trick, threaten or steal the Key from her - searching desks, questioning students, and even bringing the police into the school under cover of "security measures", Col War paranoia in overdrive. It's a kids against the world story, in which the adults are mostly either absent, ineffectual, or actively repressive and sinister:
"In the meantime, keep calm, do your duty, pull together, and we'll see this thing through with our essential British liberties preserved."
Joel stood up. "Like free speech?"
"Be quiet," thundered the policeman.
"See me!" yelled the headmaster.
Laura has to open up to her new friends, something she manages only gradually, and ask for their help. Soon they're breaking into the staffroom to look through scary Miss Wells' locker,* practising elaborate deception against the school authorities, and fleeing the police through secret tunnels. Great fun.
"Maybe you're right. Maybe they are all spies!" [Bernadette] was grinning.
"You're enjoying this. You're laughing at me."
"Well, it's better than fretting over my mum and her wash days, I'll tell you that. What would James Bond think about all this?"
Or so they think.
By this point it has been obvious to the adult reader for some time that Miss Wells is a version of Laura from the future, and that another older woman - Agatha, a waitress at the coffee bar - is also somehow connected with her. The characters are rather less quick to cotton on, of course; people never realise what type of story they're in. Then, while on the run from the police, Laura is given a copy of her diary from the future, with many more pages filled in. What follows is a sustained narrative, in future-Laura's own words, of how the world will end, and what will come in the years after:
Well, the flash came, not from the west, from the east, like a huge light bulb being switched on, and off. We all saw our shadows stretching in front of us.
"So much for the four minutes," Joel said.
We all turned around. In the east, a huge black cloud was rising up, above the roofs of the houses. It wasn't like a mushroom, really. More like a huge hammer. The only noise was people screaming, and the sirens, and church bells. No noise from the bomb.
"They've only gone and done it," Bern said. [...] Then she screamed, "Nick!"
I hadn't looked at him. He was just standing there. His mouth was stretched wide open, but no noise came out. There was this stuff running down his face. He had looked into the blast. His eyes had melted.
The vision of the future is strong stuff - exactly the kind of stuff, in fact, that I used to adore reading as a (in retrospect quite morbid) 12- and 13-year-old. Indeed, it is much more so than the novel surrounding it, which can't help but feel a little inconsequential as a result. The growing pains and teen sleuths side of the story is undoubtedly rather overpowered by the nuclear holocaust, and while one could imagine that this is in some senses the thematic point, it runs the risk of devaluing the sense of Laura's more ordinary emotional development; nuclear war trumps family break-ups, true, but that does not prevent Laura's family from being a central, not a trivial, concern for her.
From here things could have gone badly wrong, but such is the energy and directness of Baxter's writing that even the (batty) scheme to change the future - involving time machines, duelling future selves, and a Dad-led deus ex machina/exposition episode at a Beatles gig - doesn't feel forced or overly lighthearted.
Well, perhaps some of the James Bond villain machinery was pushing it a bit - although it's saved by Laura's gloss, and by the fact that the Bond motif is set up early in the book when the girls go to see Dr No at the cinema:
Miss Wells calls her machine the Burrower. It just squirms its way through the ground, leaving a tunnel behind it. It's like an underground spaceship. If I was a boy I'd probably think it was pretty neat.
This science fictional device also, very cleverly, makes Laura the real centre of attention in the book, instead of just assuming - like any self-respecting teenager - that she is:
But she was at the pivot, Laura thought. Because of the Key. She was at the place the futures were fighting over, to become real. She didn't ask for it to be that way, but that's how it was. Maybe everybody thinks they're the centre of the world. But, Laura thought now, maybe whole futures, whole worlds, billions of lives and deaths, really did depend on the decisions she made in the next few hours.
The H-Bomb Girl does feel slight next to the other, adult books on the shortlist. For all its weighty backdrop and harrowing vision of an alternate future, it simply isn't dense enough - nor does it balance its wildly contrasting elements well enough - to compete with the likes of Black Man, and would not be my pick to win. But it is very neatly done, all the same - weaving together Cold War tension, family crises, adolescent friendship, and the musical culture of its Liverpool setting in a number of inventive and whimsical ways - and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
[ * This produces one of the book's really dumb moments, when they find Stuff From The Future, including a driver's license and a mobile, and ponder what it all might mean:
"And what's this on the back?" It was a row of vertical black lines, all different thicknesses.
"A code, maybe," Joel said. "A code made of bars." ]