REVIEW: STONE COLD (3*)
by Robert Swindells (Puffin Books, 1995)
I read Stone Cold at school and remember being confused as to what all the fuss was about – but since Robert Swindells is such a well-known name in children’s literature I thought I’d give him another chance when a copy arrived in the shop. To be honest, it still wasn’t a fantastic read, but from a more mature viewpoint I appreciated the underlying message more this time around.
The novel (novella, perhaps, at 132 pages) is narrated by a young man who calls himself Link (not his real name), with his chapters alternating with the log book of a sinister ex-military man called Shelter (also not his real name). Link has escaped his home life and his mother’s abusive boyfriend and travelled to London, only to find that the plentiful jobs and new life he’d hoped to find there are no more forthcoming than in his home town. Within weeks he is homeless, with nothing but his pack, his bedroll and the few pounds left in his pocket. Fortunately for him, he is befriended by Ginger, a seasoned ‘dosser’ who takes him under his wing and teaches him how to survive on the streets. But when Ginger disappears, and a handful of others follow suit, Link starts to fear for his own safety - which is where Shelter’s chilling diary comes in…
Although my copy has the tagline ‘Fear stalks the streets’ emblazoned across the cover, the thriller aspect of the book was almost a sideline for me. By alternating Shelter’s log with Link’s narrative, Swindells removes a lot of the tension and suspense from the story, and it was quite obvious what was going on right up to the minor twist at the end. Where Swindells excels is in his portrayal of homeless life for a young person. His descriptions of survival on the street – of the fear that haunts every night and of the bleak hand-to-mouth existence of every day – are well done, and his exploration of society’s perceptions of the homeless are brutal. We’ve all seen – and often used – the reactions that Link experiences when he is begging for change, and the author lays bare the hopeless spiral in which homeless people become trapped: needing work to survive, but not being able to find any because they have no permanent address, thus becoming more and more entrenched in street life, which means that no one will give them a chance in employment… And so it goes on. It’s thought-provoking, to say the least. For that reason, I’d definitely recommend the book to younger readers for its important introduction to a major issue, but for adults there are probably other books, done better, out there to read instead.