I'd like to continue the theme Lynne started in her Wednesday post regarding the question of whether or not a British author will be popular in the US and vice versa because I recently picked up my library's copy of The Child Who, a legal thriller by British author Simon Lelic. The story centers around the predicament of Leo Curtice, an attorney who has been given the impossible assignment of providing a legal defense for Daniel Blake, a twelve year old boy who has been accused of the particularly brutal rape and murder of eleven year old Felicity Forbes. As punishment for his willingness to take on such an unpopular cause, Leo is crucified in the print and broadcast media and Leo's teenaged daughter Ellie bears a disproportionate amount of the burden as she is physically harassed by her peers, given the cold shoulder by her teachers, and abandoned by her best friend. It takes little time for the threats to Leo's family to escalate and it quickly becomes apparent to the reader, if not necessarily to Leo, that Ellie has become the target for someone who has taken it upon himself to avenge Felicity's death. In spite of the fact that Leo's wife Megan pleads with him to drop the case for the sake of his family, Leo stubbornly refuses to do so for a couple of reasons. Aside from the fact that Leo's boss considers this case to be an important step for Leo's career and the visibility of the law firm, Leo has diligently worked to establish a rapport with his troubled client and has come to regard Daniel, the product of a very dysfunctional upbringing, as a victim in his own right. As things escalates, Leo's situation spirals completely out of control and the reader is taken through some particularly harrowing plot twists as the details of the various crimes are finally revealed. By story's end, I felt completely wrung out.
The reason why the experience of reading this book was so draining is that the conflict at its center is one that most people have probably thought about at one time or another - how much would I be willing to defend a principal or otherwise stand up for what was right if it meant that by doing so, I would also be putting members of my family in harm's way? One of Lelic's accomplishments is to create Leo as an "everyman" who readers can easily identify with. As he juggles the competing demands of his job, family life, and his desire to do the right thing, he makes the types of mistakes that any one of us might commit under similar circumstances. Although I generally don't recommend mystery novels as being good choices for book discussion groups, the moral dilemma at the heart of The Child Who actually makes it an excellent exception to this rule.
But that's not to say that I didn't have some problems. One of the chapters toward the end of the novel was chronologically confusing and I wondered how this made it past the editors. Additionally, the absence of cell phones in crucial situations plus a reference to the film in a journalist's camera made me wonder if perhaps this book was an earlier effort by the author that only recently found its way into print.
This brings me to Lynne's question about why some books (and authors) don't fare as well on the opposite side of the Atlantic. For all our similarities, the cultures of Great Britain and the United States are different enough that descriptions of particular situations are sometimes just not going to ring true to readers on the other side of the pond. I can also argue that even though I have lived almost my entire life in the New York metropolitan area, I have imbibed enough American popular culture over the years to have some understanding of how people behave in other parts of my country. However, I have considerably less understanding of the nuances of British culture and its social hierarchies so even though I am aware of the fact that journalism is much more of a blood sport in the UK than it is in the US, I found the total absence of a more reasoned journalistic presence in The Child Who to be a little troubling; I also could not recognize whether or not the failures of the British legal and penal system as described in the book were completely accurate.
Lynne, your thoughts?