"The Wrong Hand" Jane Jago
This is a book that tackles a story line that some will find difficult, some will find controversial and for some, it will provoke comparisons with Jamie Bulger who was abducted and murdered in 1993. I think it would make a good read for a book group as actually poses several thought provoking questions about evil, nature/nurture and rehabilitation. It also explore themes like honesty and the consequences of living with secrets.
In summary, the story is about Danny Simpson and Graham Harris who abducted 3 year old Benjamin and murdered him. We meet them at various stages in their lives, but mainly the novel looks at what happens following their release -7 years after they committed such a horrendous crime, and their subsequent adult years as they attempt to move on with "ordinary" lives. It also follows the lives of Rachel and Matthew Allen, Benjamin's devastated and broken parents.
The novel took me a while to get into as I felt like I'd missed a few chapters somewhere - Jago assumes we're already aware of the premise and therefore begins by starting in the middle with Danny being prepared for his release back into society at the end of his prison sentence. At this point we're a little unsure who we are reading about, what exactly has happened and how the various characters are connected. We learn that Danny was given a cover story in order to survive life in prison and now he is being given a cover story to survive life on the outside. He's not a pleasant character, there is no sympathy generated despite the revelation that Dan is as terrified of living as he is of dying and the terrifying threat of being found out all over again is having a detrimental affect on his emotional and metal stability, his ability to actually forgive himself, pick up a "normal" life or ever recover from the shock of what he actually did. I think this is deliberate in order to create some distance between us - either to make it clear that our relationship with this character is going to be conflicted or to protect us a little from becoming too upset by the details and reality of the crime. Perhaps in a way, it might help us to read about Danny as we are kept a little removed.
There are several characters to meet very early on, each with a different chapter and a different involvement with Benjamin. There are narratives from Rachel, Matthew, Danny and Liam (aka Graham). The novel plays around with the chronologically as we follow the different threads - sometimes back to before the crime, sometimes just after, after the boys' release and then also bringing us up to date with the boys now as young men. This encourages pace and a more complex exploration of the topic. It gives Jago a chance to create a range of characters and write about a range of interesting positions and relationships. It gives her a chance to explore different reactions to crime, grief, death, violence and rehabilitation. It did mean it took a while to get into and a moment or two to acknowledge where in the chronological order of things that particular chapter fell and which character we were reading about, but as the book continues I think it makes it more tense and more interesting. It prevents it from becoming trite or cliched and means it retains elements of a psychological drama.
Rachel's sections are quite harrowing. Her mental anguish and the lasting impact of losing a son are obviously crippling. She has two children - one of which was "born under the shadow of the event" and subsequently is more serious, more reserved and more wary of life. Rachel drives her 13 and 9 year old to school and back everyday. They are always in her sight. They have never been on a sleepover, "her all consuming anxiety ruled their lives." She is terrified that any "happiness will lead to complacency." I absolutely relate to and completely understand this behaviour following her devastating loss but I did find her passages quite heavy going and oppressive.
Matthew's grief is equally all consuming - he has just put all his energy into tracking down the two culprits knowing that they are now released and living somewhere in the UK. The language used to describe his plight is very powerful: despair, drowning, bewilderment, blackness, unreachable grief. It was really insightful to read about how people "turn away - no platitude forthcoming"; their response very different to when other parents are trying to cope with death and loss. Benjamin's death represents every parent's worst nightmare and therefore Rachel and Matthew are almost isolated in their grief. The writing is taut but emotional and intense.
Liam's character is not black and white. Unlike Danny, he seems more redeeming and is now in a seemingly healthy relationship. However, the news that his girlfriend is pregnant provokes extreme reactions from him. He is immediately thrown into huge distress- should he confess the truth of his past to Catherine? How can he ever possibly consider being a father? What sort of child would he produce? What sort of father would he be? He doesn't want a child, but could this be the only way he can learn to forgive himself and move forward - change the course of his future? Fascinating questions and emotions for Liam to muddle through which are sure to provoke a heated discussion from any reader.
The revelation of the back stories of Graham / Liam and Danny is good. Reading about their police interviews straight after their arrest includes little details like the detective bringing in boxed juices and having to explain what is unique about a fingerprint. It jars with the reader, reminding them that these boys were merely children themselves - are they knowingly capable of such cruelty? How instinctive or primeval is the reaction or impulse to commit violence or suppress extreme curiosity? How and when do we develop a conscience and how exactly is this taught or learned? What impact does our upbringing, parental influence, environment and genetics have on our social conditioning? Reiser, the journalist writing about the case, asks all these questions. It cleverly gives Jago a platform from which to include a more "academic" voice and angle on this controversial topic.
I liked the jigsaw like puzzle of the chronology and interwoven narratives. I think it was really clever to finish with Rachel's version of the actual day Benjamin went missing. It is simple - so normal, so usual, so everyday. So blameless and so completely in no way incriminating or as a result of anything she did or didn't do. Far too chilling for any parent to read.
It is a haunting novel. It is one of extreme emotions - from the overwhelming grief of Rachel and Matthew, the psychopathic behaviour of the young boys, to the horror of "adult" Danny, to the contentious position of Liam as he considers fatherhood. It is a novel about how far ripples from a mistake spread, how deep they can go and for how long they can continue to upset the water.
It is hard not to read this novel without remembering other cases in the news that are similar, particularly that from 1993 and perhaps this affects the way we respond to certain characters. Jago has tried to create characters that challenge this judgement and considers the complexities of people's personalities and behaviours. I'm not sure it is a novel to "enjoy" but I was captivated and it did keep me turning the page. It is a book I would want to discuss in more detail with other readers and would be really interested to see how other people found it.
My thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy of this book in return for a fair review.
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