Book review

Pictures in the Dark by Gillian Cross (1996)

Photography is Charlie Willcox's thing. He's in the school Camera Club. In fact it's only because Mr Feinstein has told him to 'have a go' at something a bit different that he leans over the old bridge one night and finishes off the film with an artistic shot of black river water and orange street light.

That photograph, it doesn't actually cause the problems that follow, but it does focus Charlie's attention on them. For a start, something swam across the picture just a moment before he pressed the shutter release. So all he actually got on film was the wake. But something was there, swimming in the river. It's not long before Charlie has identified it. It's an otter. And that's great because his father has known the river all his life and hasn't seen an otter for years.

Now, Charlie isn't the only one in town to have spotted the otter. Jennifer Luttrell suddenly joins the Camera Club. She wants to learn how to take wildlife photographs at night, so that she can capture on film whatever it is that is sneaking into their back garden. Her father can't cope with it, you see. He thinks it's rats:

'Gran's too old to look after herself, but she won't come and live with us. She keeps wandering off, and getting into a terrible state and Dad has to go and sort her out. And then she yells and blames him, as if he was six or something. And he hates mess. He - ' She broke off and looked away. 'He was just about managing until that thing started coming into the garden. That was the last straw.'
Charlie wanted to be sympathetic, but he couldn't stop his heart leaping with excitement. 'That animal's still around?'
'Every night now. Dad goes round the garden before breakfast, looking for tracks.'
'And ... the poison?'
Jennifer pulled a face. 'That was useless. It wouldn't touch it. It was as if it knew.'
'And he still thinks it's rats?'
'Yes ... but I'm sure he's wrong! I wish I could prove it. He might stop going on about it then.'

Well, maybe Charlie and Jennifer can work together on that one, but all that does is get Charlie involved with Jennifer's weird little brother, Peter. It isn't long before Charlie realizes that Peter knows more about the river, and its otter population, than anyone else.

But Peter is so weird that he makes everyone feel uncomfortable, and he is the target of a great deal of bullying at school. It isn't that Peter does anything. It's just that when he tenses up he has a strange way of staring into space. There's a rather malicious group of older girls who call him the Evil Eye, and to Charlie's distress the group seems to be led by his own cousin, Zoe.

So there you have it. It's a complicated plot. I can tell you that the bullying gets very serious, and Charlie nearly mishandles the final confrontation. But I still haven't quite got to grips with Peter and the otter. Obviously Peter befriends the otter, wild and free, as a way to escape, in his own imagination, from the mistreatment he receives both at home and at school. Just for one mad moment, Charlie wonders if Peter really is some sort of witch:

Ugly words hissed in his head - familiar, shape-shifter, witch. The smoke of them drifted across his mind, making him shudder. Was Zoe right? Was it true that he couldn't see what was right under his nose?

But, fortunately for all concerned, Charlie looks again, and can only see Peter - nervous, withdrawn, given to hysterical fits.

There's an awful lot in this book. It's a vivid and complicated plot, which I enjoyed enormously. Very real.

What can I read next?

Gillian Cross has written plenty of books, all set in a very real world. Have a look at:

  • Tightrope
  • Wolf

If you enjoy the rather intense introspection of this book, you might like to look at anything by Tim Bowler:

  • River Boy
  • Starseeker

Or this compelling story by Nicola Morgan:

If you enjoy stories about difficult times at school, you might like to look at something by Michael Coleman:

  • Tag
  • Weirdo's War

If it's the matter-of-fact, mature young hero, Charlie Willcox, who really appeals to you in Pictures in the Dark, you might like to look at this one by June Oldham:

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