De­fined by sins of omis­sion in a trou­bled play­ground

The Guilty One

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sue Green Sue Green

AN open mind is surely the reader’s great­est as­set. Each new book is a fresh ad­ven­ture and this un­known ter­rain is best trav­elled with­out bag­gage.

So when a novel — a de­but, no less — ar­rives en­cum­bered by the de­scrip­tors ‘‘ phe­nom­e­non’’ and ‘‘ sen­sa­tion’’, by pub­lisher claims of ‘‘ the big­gest book of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011’’ and prom­ises ‘‘ blan­ket PR cov­er­age will cat­a­pult Lisa Bal­lan­tyne to the top of the best­seller list’’, it en­gen­ders not so much high ex­pec­ta­tions as sus­pi­cion and doubt. Can a first novel re­ally be this good?

The an­swer is an em­phatic yes. The Guilty One is a won­der­ful book, rich and re­ward­ing, filled with de­lights yet with an over­whelm­ing sad­ness that lingers be­yond the fi­nal pages. It is all the more re­mark­able be­cause, un­til her re­search, Bal­lan­tyne, 37, a Glas­gow Univer­sity staff mem­ber, knew lit­tle of the Lon­don and Cum­bria set­tings she beau­ti­fully evokes, nor of the lawyers and courts of which she writes so as­suredly.

Lon­don de­fence lawyer Daniel Hunter is of­fered a dif­fi­cult, high-pro­file brief: rep­re­sent­ing 11-year-old Se­bas­tian Croll, charged with the play­ground murder of a younger boy, a neigh­bour. Se­bas­tian, in­tel­li­gent, beau­ti­ful and vul­ner­a­ble-look­ing, de­nies smash­ing Ben Stokes with a brick and hid­ing his body. And Daniel, un­cer­tain, is in­clined to be­lieve him, not least be­cause he sees in Se­bas­tian re­minders of his own trou­bled past and ca­pac­ity for vi­o­lence.

Bal­lan­tyne has said Se­bas­tian’s guilt or in­no­cence is ‘‘ re­ally ir­rel­e­vant’’. He ex­ists to throw Daniel’s story — ‘‘ a young, dam­aged and vi­o­lent child but some­one who grew to be­come a largely func­tional, car­ing adult’’ — into re­lief. And while Se­bas­tian is an un­set­tling char­ac­ter, the pre­dictable trial and its af­ter­math is the only big flaw in this novel.

The adult Daniel is, like Bal­lan­tyne, frus­trated with English jus­tice’s treat­ment of ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers. This is his story, with two in­ter­wo­ven nar­ra­tives: his past and his present, in which Se­bas­tian’s case has echoes of the no­to­ri­ous 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bul­ger by two older boys. It trig­gers mem­o­ries of his child­hood, but it is a let­ter from his dy­ing adop­tive mother, Min­nie Flynn, which forces him to con­front it. She is dead when he re­ceives it.

Daniel, child of a drug-ad­dicted sin­gle mother, was fos­tered, then adopted, by By Lisa Bal­lan­tyne Pi­atkus, 469pp, $24.99 Min­nie, a widow in her 50s on a small­hold­ing in Cum­bria. Min­nie, large, brash, brave, down­ing late-night gin to blunt her own emo­tional pain, saves him. But this is no candy-coated jour­ney of sal­va­tion. There are dif­fi­cul­ties, even vi­o­lence. He had thought about do­ing it since she gave him the knife. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he wanted to frighten her. He wanted her to know the truth about him right away. He turned and held the knife up to her face, the point about an inch from her nose. Tomato seeds blood­ied its blade. He wanted to see her mouth turned down in fear. He wanted her to scream. He had tried it be­fore with oth­ers and it made him feel pow­er­ful to see them flinch and re­coil. He didn’t care if she was his last chance. He didn’t want to be in her stink­ing house.

The de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween Daniel and Min­nie is beau­ti­fully ren­dered. But, ul­ti­mately, she be­trays him. Since that day he has dis­owned her. There will be no rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. By ex­tin­guish­ing that hope in the reader early Bal­lan­tyne casts a pall over the sub­se­quent nar­ra­tive but saves it from the kind of mawk­ish, re­demp­tive end­ing nov­el­ists too of­ten find ir­re­sistible.

The Guilty One is pro­moted as ideal for read­ing groups. Mar­ket­ing gold, no doubt, but this is to do it a dis­ser­vice, sug­ges­tive of over­wrought prose and fe­male read­ers of a cer­tain age (a de­mo­graphic into which this re­viewer fits). It de­serves a wider au­di­ence, not just for its skil­ful writ­ing and grip­ping story but be­cause it tack­les is­sues that touch us all. Who has not been dis­turbed by crimes by chil­dren against other chil­dren? Who has not made youth­ful de­ci­sions with­out re­al­is­ing how life-chang­ing they would be?

Who among us who has lost a loved one has not re­gret­ted things un­done and un­said, longed for a chance to make amends? Who is the guilty one? Ev­ery­one.

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