Defined by sins of omission in a troubled playground
The Guilty One
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.