Cautionary tale about a boy and girl


Nick Hornby

Penguin, 12.99

I WAS happily trundling along through Nick Hornby's debut teenage novel, admiring his skill with dialogue, wry humour and confidence in negotiating the familiar north London, About A Boy territory, and relationships being conducted therein, when my skateboarding teenager picked it up and read a few chapters.

"It's like he's thought: 'What are teenagers into? I know, skateboards and Tony Hawk, I'll put in lots of skating.' Tony Hawk's okay but he's in his forties! And he hardly skates now. But I might read it anyway," was the verdict.

Fair enough (although Hawk is "only" 39 and according to his website still skates almost every day), but Slam is about much more than skating. It deals with relationships and what happens when teenagers start having sex and unexpectedly become parents. It is written from the perspective of 16-year-old skating obsessive Sam, who seeks advice from a Tony Hawk poster on his wall that miraculously obliges with chunks from the skater's autobiography.

Painfully aware of the consequences of having too much too young since his mother is only 32, Sam continues the family tradition when his first serious girlfriend becomes pregnant. Unlike his parents, who married only to split up and spend the next decade bickering, Sam tries to escape his future. However, his hero Hawk somehow flips him into the future, and although at first horrified by what fate has in store, he is eventually reconciled with what lies ahead.

As a plot device, time travel can often leave the reader foundering in confusion, but despite never explaining the mechanics, Hornby manages Sam's journey of self-discovery well.

There is a lot that rings true in Slam; the clumsy conversations and sex of adolescence, the excruciating scenes of having to break the news to furious parents, the honest appraisal of how relationships stagger along or dizzying infatuations rapidly peter out. He is spot-on with the way a conversation with a teenage boy contains more meaningful silences than Harold Pinter's entire oeuvre yet girls can't resist texting their every waking thought.

Hornby manages to make us smile in recognition at the self-obsessed teenagers and in sympathy at the parents who have nothing in common but their child. Even Sam's thirtysomething father, whose response to the news he is to become a grandfather is delight that he will be young enough to play on the same football team as his grandson, has something to offer. Hornby's message is that we might have kids at the wrong time with the wrong people, but that's okay, because that's what families are like and what ultimately matters is how people turn out.

So if your teenager is out skating, they're probably too busy to read this book - or have sex - anyway, but if they're in their room with a boyfriend or girlfriend, shove it under the door quick, before it's too late.

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