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Writer sheds light on world of 2 boys

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A CLOCK WITHOUT HANDS, by Guy Burt, Random House, 432 pages, $24.95.

Guy Burt won a young writer's award when he was 12 and published his first novel, "The Hole," when he was only 18. Since becoming an adult, he has written a second novel and also taught at Eton, the British prep school.

In short, Burt can write and he knows boys. His latest novel, "A Clock Without Hands," is a compelling coming-of-age story — a coming-of-age story that is also a mystery.

The book is set in Italy, in modern times. The main character, a British artist named Alex, has come back to the town where he grew up. He thinks he's just coming to Italy for a few days to clean out the house his parents had owned before their deaths. Alex has an art exhibit opening in London, and he wants to get home.

In fact, he soon realizes, he won't be able to leave Italy until he has resolved his past. He needs to understand the things he didn't understand as a boy.

It seems that as a child, Alex was more naive than most children. He had such a strong imagination that he often couldn't tell whether he was remembering something that happened a few days earlier, or whether he had actually experienced the event that day. His parents punished him for being a liar, even though he actually wasn't lying. He was bewildered.

So Alex was a sad little boy, until he met a neighbor kid named Jamie, a boy who understood him. The boys became best friends. Then one summer, Jamie's cousin Anna came to stay. Anna was a wild girl, and Alex and Jamie were intrigued by her but also a bit reluctant to include her in their friendship. To further complicate the plot, the three children spent their summer helping a grown man, a man who may or may not have been a good person.

It was a confusing time for Alex, and, looking back on it as an adult, he recounts the events exactly as he saw them at the time. This means that the reader is also unable to gather all the facts. We get only the slightest of clues as to what will happen later. The tone of the novel grows ever more menacing as it becomes more and more clear that Alex is too innocent to defend himself.

In "A Clock Without Hands," Guy Burt demonstrates a beautiful skill: He proves that he can write about the world through the eyes of a child.

Burt is not completely convincing when writing of the girl Anna, but his two male characters, Alex and Jamie, are excellent. Burt understands the boys' friendship and their struggles with sexuality, and he understands the loneliness of being a boy who is different in some way.

Both Alex and Jamie are different, and both are tenderhearted. Although Alex is the main character, the one who was never considered a "normal" child, it is Jamie who will haunt you. You'll think about Jamie long after you finish this novel.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com