Val Randall on the novels of Kate Cann
The Crossroads of Adolescence
Kate Cann writes books for teenagers. She studied English and American Literature at Kent University and went on to work as a copy editor and writer. She decided to become a freelance editor whilst looking after her two children, who are now teenagers themselves. Her first books were written for The Women’s Press.
Cann firmly believes that teenagers need literature which caters for them alone. She is aware that adolescence is a frightening crossroads: young people must attempt to determine who they are and then move on to face the challenges to come. Her work demonstrates that fiction is a powerful mediator, confirming identity and preparing for the way ahead. All her protagonists undertake journeys through relationships and into self-discovery.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Coll and Art trilogy: Diving In, In the Deep End and Sink or Swim. Coll has long admired Art from a distance and when he finally asks her out she is both excited and disconcerted at the depth of her feeling for him. The overwhelming sense of commitment she feels when she makes the decision to sleep with him is not wholly reciprocated and after a painful break-up she begins to realise that she can only accept the relationship on her terms. Coll’s strength and self-knowledge give Art pause to consider his standpoint – to learn from his mistakes or lose a relationship he truly values but is afraid to commit to.
Another intriguing facet of Cann’s work is her astute and convincing observation of young men in relationships. In Hard Cash and its sequel Shacked Up, Rich, obsessed with the stunning but vacuous Portia, is finally repelled by her shallowness, realising that he does not like the person he has made himself become in order to ensnare her. The power in the writing lies in acknowledging our capacity for self-deception: further, Rich’s dilemma is presented with unwavering realism – the reader is both amused and sympathetic towards Rich’s struggles to come to an understanding of his needs.
Reassuring elements of Cann’s characterisation are the self-doubt and fear of the unknown which beset her protagonists. These narrative threads clearly give support and affirmation to young readers – afraid that they may be inadequate – and demonstrate the rewards and difficulties of exploring alternatives to the social conventions which we are all so afraid of abandoning.
In Footloose, Cann’s first book, Kelly rejects her boyfriend’s offer to accompany him on a boys-only outdoor pursuits holiday. He expects gratitude and acquiescence but instead Kelly goes to Greece with two friends and works through to a sense of her own identity. This is not easy – the book charts a convincing course through the ebb and flow of Kelly’s progress towards emotional integrity and a surer sense of herself.
Cann repeatedly returns to the maxim that it is natural to lose ground emotionally – indeed, that it is a necessary part of knowing what is best for us.
What really marks out Cann as an exceptional writer of teenage fiction is her descriptions of sexual relationships. She conveys beautifully the power and the danger of sex: always poised on the fulcrum of commitment and fear, used both as a weapon and a life-transforming experience. She explores this subject fearlessly and with great sensitivity, giving it an openness and honesty which cut through the myth and confusion surrounding teenage sexuality.
Sex can wound, too. In Breaking Up, Fliss is desperate to embark on a sexual relationship with her boyfriend Simon, as a buffer against her sense of isolation and loss, following the break-up of her parents’ marriage. After Simon’s rejection and a face-to-face encounter with her father’s sexual betrayal Fliss has a nervous breakdown. Its aftermath and the healing process are steered by a familiar motif of Cann’s – the strong female mentor. Always supportive, honest and wise, these women provide an emotional anchor without mutual self-recrimination: not unattainable role models but invaluable supports.
Kate Cann’s unwavering grasp of what lies at the heart of young people’s anxieties about themselves and their world is the bedrock of her fiction. Add to this an unerring ear for dialogue, an array of characters who are instantly recognisable but avoid the cliché of stereotype, and an ability to write page-turning stories which are thought-provoking and emotionally honest, and her appeal to young adults is both explained and assured.
Val Randall teaches English at Mansfield High School, North East Lancashire.
Details of books discussed:
From The Women’s Press, new editions Sept. 01, £4.99 each:
Breaking Up, 208pp, 0 7043 4976 0
Diving In, 256pp, 0 7043 4980 9
In the Deep End, 224pp, 0 7043 4981 7
Sink or Swim, 224pp, 0 7043 4982 5
From Scholastic, new editions, £4.99 each:
Footloose, 320pp, 0 439 01308 9
Hard Cash, 320pp, 0 439 99349 0
Shacked Up, 336pp, 0 439 99350 4