|THE CHILD WHO
Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Released: 5 January 2012
Earlier this year, in the inaugural post on Reader Dad, I noted that Simon Lelic, after only two novels, is an absolute must-read author. His third novel, the tense and ultimately heart-breaking The Child Who is released in January, and is, to my mind at least, his best work to date, and surely one of the top books of 2012.
Leo Curtice is a solicitor who spends his days dealing with drunk and disorderlies, an unchanging, soul-destroying routine that ends when he takes a phone call and finds himself defending a twelve-year-old boy, Daniel Blake, who has been accused of murdering a schoolmate, the eleven-year-old Felicity Forbes. Leo jumps at the chance, seeing it as a career-making move, ignoring the advice of everyone around him, not seeming to grasp the fact that the tabloids will paint him as a villain, a man willing to defend the murderer of a child. As the case proceeds, and Leo develops a rapport with the young boy, he fails to acknowledge the strain his actions are placing on his family. His daughter, Ellie, is attacked in school and quickly becomes an outcast, her friends deserting her because of what her father is doing. When Leo and his family are threatened, he tells himself it comes with the job, nothing to worry about. But Leo is heading towards disaster, an event that will change his life, and the lives of everyone around him.
As with Lelic’s previous two novels, the strength of The Child Who is in the characters, solid chunks of humanity that evoke real reactions from the reader. The story is told from the point of view of Leo, and it is through this means that Lelic builds suspense. There is no omniscient narrator here, despite the third person narrative, so we learn things as Leo does, and we only ever know what he knows. Each of the characters with whom he interacts – his wife and daughter, Daniel Blake and his parents, the head of the detention facility where Daniel is being kept, his colleagues, friends – comes fully-formed and in three dimensions, real people that we come to like, or to hate, or to meet briefly in passing, as we do during the day-to-day course of our own lives.
Lelic has his finger on the pulse of how Britain thinks, the tabloid mentality that grips the common man when these horrific events occur:
He goddamn nearly raped her. This is what they all kept coming back to, as though rape were as bad as it could get.
The second chapter of the book repeats the phrase “he goddamn nearly raped her” and the reader, like Leo, is stunned that this is almost bigger news than the fact that he killed her, as if the fact that this young boy took this young girl’s life is not enough to satisfy the bloodlust of the nation.
The Child Who deals with a shocking subject matter, and does so head-on. This is a story grabbed from so many newspaper headlines over the course of the past decade and beyond. Lelic adds a human element through an examination of the impact this terrible crime has on everyone involved: the family of the victim; the young murderer who cannot quite comprehend what he has done despite what the law says of his culpability, and his family; and, unusually, the family of the solicitor hired to defend this murderer, a man who will do everything he can for his client, because that is his job.
Lelic displays a keen mastery of language, his turns of phrase unusual, but immediately evocative, much more effective at planting images in the mind of the reader than verbose descriptive passages:
[…] pupils were beginning to appear in the playground below. There was a boy, alone, rummaging in his rucksack and weaving towards the entrance. In his wake whirled a gossip of girls.
Much like the guards tacked to the common room walls, the boys all wore smart shirts and trousers […]
The Child Who starts slow, the tension building as the story moves forwards and Leo loses himself in the case at the cost of his family relationships. When disaster strikes, it does not come as much of a surprise to the reader, because we have a little bit more distance than Leo. From there Lelic works his way towards the book’s final paragraph, a masterstroke that, I’m not ashamed to admit, brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, the most effective and impactful ending to a novel I have read in a long time.
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.