Nicholas Dane  

By Melvin Burgess
Published by Penguin

Charles Dickens’s novels are credited with helping to expose the dark underbelly of Victorian society. Today we enjoy Oliver Twist as a jolly musical, forgetting the horror of child exploitation and poverty depicted in the original novel.

But can fiction change our materialistic, glossy 21st century society with its own underbelly of broken families, drug addiction and violence against children?

If so, we should all turn to Melvin Burgess, who rather irritatingly has been dubbed one of those pesky ‘controversial’ writers, presumably because he writes about themes that adults would rather not face. This is the case with the gripping and difficult Nicholas Dane, which tells the story of what happens when a 14-year-old is let down by the ‘agencies’ meant to help.

Nick is sent to a boys’ home following the death of his mother from a heroin overdose and is subjected to brutal and sustained physical and sexual abuse. My journalistic instincts baulked at the unceasing violence depicted in these scenes, but a cursory search of Google revealed cases of abuse still being reported and exposed in care homes today and in the 1980s when the novel is set.

What Burgess writes about so well is the effect of adult behaviour on children and our Nick is bemused, hopeless and angry. An unsentimental storyteller, the author writes in a relentlessly spare tone that does not falter. I couldn’t put it down and was thinking about it for days.

This is a modern classic, for young adults and MPs everywhere.

Review by
Lesley Finlay