The world portrayed by Melvin Burgess is often bleak and persecutory – teenage drug addiction in Junk, paranoia and betrayal in Bloodtide and compulsive behaviour in Lady. So far, however, his powerfully imaginative writing and often archetypal characters have enabled him to carry off challenging subject matter in a way that teenage readers can engage with. Robbers on the Road*, his latest book and one aimed at a younger age group, is a different matter.
Written for a young fiction series, ‘Tudor Flashbacks’, Robbers on the Road is the story of two boys, Will and Francis, at school in Elizabethan times and how they get involved with a highwayman. Details of the beatings inflicted by their schoolmaster, Mr Japes, are described with a relish that belies the reality of such cruel treatment: ‘It was a usual sort of whipping – not too hard but enough to leave some good red stripes…’; ‘Francis showed us all his stripes – there was blood.’ But, most disturbingly, Burgess has Francis deliberately and repeatedly provoking the schoolmaster to punish him and then voluntarily placing himself ready for punishment. Perhaps an adult reader could understand that a very disturbed child might need to act out such a sado-masochistic scenario, longing for rescue. But no such psychological portrait is on offer in this crudely written short novel even if such a thing were appropriate to the age range for the series within which it is published. Instead, with Robbers on the Road we have a book that just dumps on children.
* Robbers on the Road by Melvin Burgess is published by A & C Black at £8.99.