Still hope for the lost generation

Originally planned as a drama project for British TV, this novel may anger some but it will surely inspire others

Kill all Enemies
By Melvin Burgess.
Puffin. Pages 320. £7.99.

Reviewed by Nicholas Tucker

FIVE thousand, 700 hundred and 40 pupils were permanently excluded from Englandís schools in 2009/10, with a further 279,260 excluded for a fixed term.

Some would have gone on to a PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) if there were any vacancies; others might simply have hung around, often storing up big trouble for the years to come.

Now Melvin Burgess, the godfather of teen fiction, has these ex-pupils in his sights for his latest explosive novel. If society is indeed sewing dragonís teeth for its future, this story helps explain why.

Its cast, who tell their own stories, starts with Billie, a battling 14-year-old kicked out of her family and in trouble with each new set of foster parents. She is joined by Chris, a bright boy from a settled home who has refused to do any homework for four years and somehow got away with it. The final member of the trio is overweight Rob, big enough in appearance but badly bullied at home by his jealous stepfather.

All three are at some stage in the care of Hannah, a social worker who combines acute understanding with the patience of a saint. When each is excluded from school, they find a temporary refuge in a local PRU run by Jim, an unorthodox teacher with a heart of gold. Working with disturbed pupils is neither glamorous nor easy, always carrying the risk of criticism. Burgess comes out full of admiration not just for the staff who run such places but also for the pupils who attend. Many he sees as modern heroes, with far bigger priorities to deal with in their unhappy domestic lives than anything arising at school.

By the end all three teenagers are better off than ever seemed possible, with few readers likely to question a fairly happy ending, so skillfully has Burgess wound them in. To write this story the author visited several PRUís in the North-West. But he seems not to have talked as much to those equally heroic schoolteachers challenged by such pupils. The teacher Chris cheeks most in class ends up weeping with frustration, yet Burgess still turns him and the school where he works into caricatures of malice and hypocrisy.

Troubled pupils have their own agendas, but so too do those trying to control them while teaching something meaningful. Originally planned as a drama project for Channel 4, this novel may anger some but it will surely inspire others. It will certainly never bore them. ó The Independent