Simon Lelic is developing a track record as a novelist who approaches his subject matter from interesting angles and explores thorny moral issues, notably in his 2010 debut Rupture, a multi-viewpoint examination of what drove a teacher to open fire in a school assembly. Lelic turned the conspiracy thriller inside-out in last year’s The Facility; now he has returned to contemporary crime with The Child Who. This new novel concerns the case of a twelve-year-old boy who killed a girl at his school; though Lelic’s main focus is neither victim nor murderer, but the boy’s lawyer.
Leo Curtice is the solicitor who takes the call and ends up representing Daniel Blake, in what becomesExeter’s most attention-grabbing trial in years. From the beginning, Lelic makes clear what a double-edged sword this assignment is for Leo: on the one hand, such a high-profile case is an opportunity that comes around very rarely; on the other, the job is repugnant, because there is no doubt of the boy’s guilt. Leo isn’t entirely comfortable with viewing the case as an ‘opportunity’, and struggles to justify his involvement to himself and others; his purpose seems nebulous even when he discusses it with Daniel Blake, and reveals that it’s not so much a matter of defending the boy as presenting his culpability in the least worst light.
The Child Who builds into a study of a man under emotional pressure from all sides (we learn relatively early on that Leo’s involvement in the case rips his family apart).
Leo deals with negative reactions by focusing in on his work, and there’s a strong sense that he is using the formal words of his profession as a shield; when Leo tries to explain to his daughter Ellie why he’s representing Blake, all his talk of habeus corpus does not satisfy her when she just wants to know why it’s he in particular who has the case. And Leo is still falling into the same pattern of behaviour when his wife Megan is about to leave him:
‘I need a break. From the house as much as anything. And it’s clear you need to focus. If you really feel you need to do this, it would be better, for your sake, if you did it without any more . . . distractions.’
Leo nodded – not conceding the point, just bobbing past it. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I was looking at some recent cases. At the coverage in the press once things actually got underway. And what happens is, when a trial begins, there’s actually less attention in a way because of all the restric . . .’
Leo stopped himself. From the look on Megan’s face, the coverage was not the point.
‘I’ll be in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Let me know when you’re ready.’
For all that Leo acts in this way, he finds it no easier to deal with being on the receiving end of similar behaviour; he is himself frustrated by the rhetorical fencing of Ellie’s headteacher. This is one of the most interesting things Lelic does in The Child Who: to gradually place Leo in the same position as the parents of Felicity Forbes (the girl killed by Blake), and examine his response. Leo begins to receive threatening notes, then Ellie disappears; and his feelings towards the anonymous culprit are no less hostile than others’ have been towards Daniel Blake.
There are several striking scenes in which Lelic presents emotionally-charged events from a distance, because of Leo’s perspective. There’s a violent protest when Daniel is driven to court for the first time, but we experience it all from inside his police van, where it becomes particularly abstract and menacing for Leo. Felicity Forbes’s funeral is a national event, but, seen on television (and as the only glimpse we get of Felicity’s family), it could as well be happening in a different reality. In keeping with the idea of Leo’s personal life and work mirroring each other, it might be considered that eventually he becomes as distanced from his family as he was from external views of the case. In its complex portrait of the protagonist and his situation, The Child Who might just be Lelic’s most effective novel yet.