The Web: Untouchable Eric Brown (Dolphin, £3.50, 106 pages, paperback). October 1997.
Some of Eric Brown's most powerful fiction is set in Asia -- parts of Blue Shifting, the as yet unpublished Bengal Station. He has travelled extensively in the region, and he writes about the extremes of beauty and squalor, grace and poverty, with compassion and artistry.
A short story writer at heart, this is Brown's first piece of book-length fiction since Engineman, which was published in 1994. (Even so, as part of the Web series, this is a very slim book...)
Ana Devi is a one-legged, homeless girl who lives on the streets of New Delhi. She begs rupees from the rich, saving whatever she can manage in order to buy new eyes for her blind younger brother, Ajay. She and Ajay live in fear of Deepak Rao, a small-time villain who 'looks after' the street children, living off the money they beg. Any child who dares run away from Rao -- as Ana and Ajay did two weeks previously -- soon comes to regret it.
Inevitably, Rao finds them -- there wouldn't be a story if he didn't. Ana manages to evade him, but not before she has seen Rao hand Ajay over to a mysterious, elderly woman (the recurring plot motif of the Web series) in a white Mercedes. And so we begin Ana's quest to find her kidnapped brother and set him free.
It's a plot which -- atypically for Brown -- hinges on chance happenings.
Ana follows the kidnappers to a wealthy district of New Delhi, where she just happens to come across a rich kid who is determined -- despite Ana's hostility -- to help her. He persuades her that they should enter the Web to post Missing Person reports, in the hope that someone will have seen something suspicious in the real world and give them a lead.
And then, on her first trip into the Web, Ana just happens to spot Deepak Rao with the mystery woman, and just happens to eavesdrop on their plans...
Those reservations aside, Untouchable is a slick, fast-paced story, with all the atmosphere and deeply wrought characters we have come to expect from Brown. As with other books in the Web series, it would be a shame if any of his fans were put off by the Young Adult label (or by the simple fact that this label means it won't be shelved along with his other books in the shops).
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© Keith Brooke 4 October 1997