Ally Kennen, Beast. Scholastic Children's Books, 2006. Pp. 247. ISBN 0439951046. £6.99.

Reviewed by Djibril.

 [ Beast: cover image © 2006 Marion Lloyd Books ] This book, targeted at a young adult or teenage readership (12+ according to the cover), is the debut novel by British author and musician Ally Kennen. It is narrated by Stephen, a troubled boy of seventeen from a violent, unstable, and now broken home, who lives with a foster family who are also slightly dysfunctional (at least as far as he is concerned). In particular the foster-sister, Carol, has taken as her mission in life to make his time with them as difficult as possible—Carol is one of the strongest characters in the book, simultaneously the human villain of the piece (although Stephen's destitute father is a close contender), and very believable as a younger sister, with the ambivalent jealousy/craving for attention that leads to her almost incredibly hostile words and behaviour. She is not Stephen's biggest problem, however, since he is resigned to not being trusted by his foster family and eventually being thrown out once he is old enough to no longer be the responsibility of the social services. His real nemesis is the Beast of the title.

At first neither described nor named, the Beast is a formless, terrifying, predatory monster that Stephen has cared for since it was a baby, and who lives in a cage hidden near the reservoir. He feeds it whenever he dares to get away, and with whatever meat he can find or afford: stolen poultry, roadkill, whole pigs. But the Beast is growing both in size and in appetite, and Stephen fears that the cage may not be able to hold it for much longer. What will happen then is his darkest nightmare, with the English countryside becoming a hunting ground, innocent people slaughtered, and himself stalked across the country and finally devoured by the monster he has created. He cannot think of any way to rid himself of the Beast except to kill it, an option that hurts the part of him that has developed paternal feelings toward the creature he has raised since infancy.

The character of Stephen himself is strongly sketched. He is clearly intelligent, but crippled in this regard by a patchy formal education and the usual delinquent distrust of book-learning; he shows embarrassment at his own interest in biological or geographical matters, at one point even apologising to the reader: "Sorry, I find stuff like this interesting" (55). Like any teenager he tries to be cockily confident (but sometimes comes across as petulant, and hates himself when that happens), is awkward with girls, and can become aggressive when challenged or disbelieved, but he is at heart a gentle, generous soul. The story opens with that clichéd stock of the children's novel, the list of "ten worst things I have ever done" that reads like an extract from Stephen's journal (if he were literate enough to keep one), and includes serious crimes like theft and arson, adolescent revenge ("perversion" and "biohazard sabotage"), to murder, the crime he has not yet committed but plans to do so (the victim being his Beast). On the whole Stephen's voice is very convincing, with casual and crude notes to keep him real, but soft enough to remain readable and likeable. There are only a couple of minor exceptions where he uses words or expressions perhaps too sophisticated for his character, but these do not really jar.

For a story with such dark undertones, this novel ends with a trace of hope. His encounter with and care for the growing Beast seems to have provided the neglected Stephen with some maturity, with an experience of what it is to be responsible for a child: an example of parenting which he has conspicuously not been given either by his own parents or by those provided for him by the foster care agency. We may imagine from the final scenes, that he has learnt enough from this experience, and that Stephen may grow up at least somewhat less broken than so many displaced children like him.

In summary, this novel is a well-crafted work of prose, which covers both fantastic events and all-too-real horrors with an unexpected lightness of touch. This very elegant use of tone both makes the book accessible in a way that the hard subject matter alone might not have, and perhaps unfortunately, potentially leaves readers with the impression that what they have read is more lightweight and forgettable than it deserves to be. (The subtlety of the ending may have a similar effect by its refusal to be glamorous and sensational.) Nevertheless, this is a very impressive debut novel, an excellent read, and a promising start to the career of a new young writer.

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