Read­ing room

How far would you go to pro­tect a child in dan­ger? That is the ques­tion posed in this grip­ping new novel, says Juliet Rieden.


There’s some­thing raw and com­pul­sive about Sarah Armstrong’s novel Prom­ise. The ur­gent de­scrip­tions pull you in from the out­set as pro­tag­o­nist Anna tries to grap­ple with the hor­rors go­ing on in front of her eyes. Anna, a not very am­bi­tious graphic de­signer, lives on her own in a tum­ble­down rented house. Fol­low­ing the death of her neigh­bour, new ten­ants ar­rive. Gabby and wan five-year-old daughter Char­lie are a rag-tag pair. Gabby seems out of it and Char­lie hun­gry and des­per­ately un­kempt. When Gabby’s part­ner, Harlan, turns up, all men­ace and anger, Anna knows Char­lie is in dan­ger. The girl has sus­pi­cious in­juries and Anna and boyfriend Dave call the au­thor­i­ties when Harlan’s rage ex­plodes and Char­lie is trapped in the fir­ing line.

More in­ci­dents oc­cur, but no one seems to be able to re­move Char­lie from the abuse. Anna is her only hope. Fac­ing threats from Harlan, Anna abducts Char­lie and goes on the run with her, and it is this moral dilemma that is so grip­ping.

Sarah says she was in­spired to write the novel after see­ing me­dia re­ports about a two-year-old boy who died, his mother charged with his mur­der. “Neigh­bours said they had been con­cerned about him and had alerted com­mu­nity ser­vices sev­eral times. They’d done their best to get him help, yet the boy died. I imag­ined that if I were them, I might have wished I’d just picked him up one day, put him in my car and driven away.

“I think the rea­son the story cap­tured my at­ten­tion was be­cause after my daughter was born in 2010, I de­vel­oped a height­ened aware­ness of the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of chil­dren. I’d lie awake and think that in­evitably, cer­tainly, there were small chil­dren in my town be­ing abused.

And I felt a ter­ri­ble help­less­ness. So cre­at­ing a character who takes de­ci­sive ac­tion was per­haps a way for me to have a con­ver­sa­tion with my­self – and, once pub­lished, with oth­ers – about how far our re­spon­si­bil­ity for other chil­dren ex­tends.”

It’s a pow­er­ful plot, pitch­ing vig­i­lan­tism against in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity. It takes us on an edge-of-the-seat ride to see if Anna can save Char­lie and also her­self. The re­sult is thought-pro­vok­ing and very read­able.

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