Both the Betty Trask Prize and Awards once had the word romance in there somewhere which put me off a little: not my genre. That’s been long since dropped and given that winners include Strange Heart Beating, Elizabeth is Missing and We Need New Names, I’ve learned to take notice of it. Daniel Shand won the Award in 2016 for his first novel Fallow. His second, Crocodile, is about eleven-year-old Chloe, left with her grandparents for the summer holidays by her chaotic mother who is trying to get herself better.
Chloe’s heard nothing but criticism of her grandparents from Angie. They’ve not seen Chloe since she was an infant but welcome her into their home as best they can. She misses her mother, the evenings wrapped up together in a duvet in front of the TV watching something unsuitable for children, but not the string of boyfriends, the drunken sprees or foraging for food in near-empty cupboards. She’s careful with people, preparing a face for them. She finds her way into a self-proclaimed gang although Ally, Darryl and Chris get up to very little in the way of mischief. As the summer wears on, Chloe settles into her grandparents’ comfortable humdrum life loosening her grip on her determination to go back to her mother. The gang does what kids do until a game of Truth or Dare goes horribly wrong. When her mother turns up, furious to find that Chloe has met her Uncle Bob, she takes her daughter away with an old flame, a trip which ends badly laying bare the cause of Angie’s self-destructive lifestyle.
Shand tells Chloe’s story from her own perspective, wisely avoiding the tricky child narrator technique. She’s ‘the girl’, rarely Chloe, as if she’s distant even from herself. Her character is in stark contrast with the boys who become her friends, her mental state indicated by her catastrophic thinking – a small boy is envisaged flattened on the road, her mother’s boyfriend’s car overturned in a ditch. She’s always on guard, primed for disaster. All of this is deftly handled with a pleasing helping of striking descriptive language:
Men in aprons look up from ledgers and smile when they enter, door chiming, and the girl wonders what kind of storybook planet she’s washed up on
He wants them to like him. The girl shivers, seeing all her own inner workings projected up on the screen of this child
A great heavy summer storm, with the fuming clouds rolling in from the ocean and the air tasting like salt and something tangy
Carefully and intelligently, Shand uncovers the damage suffered by Angie and the effects that damage has had on Chloe despite her mother’s fierce but misguided efforts to protect her. It’s a quietly powerful novel, perceptive and compassionate, and about as far from romance as you can get.