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.