TagSimon Lelic

Simon Lelic, The Child Who (2012)

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.

Elsewhere
Scotsman interview with Simon Lelic
Some other reviews of The Child Who: Reader Dad; Julie Martis for Bookgeeks; Mean Streets.

Book notes: Coles, Lelic, O’Flynn

Amongst my longer reviews, I’m going to start posting brief notes on some of the other books I’ve read. Here is the first round-up:

William Coles, The Well-Tempered Clavier (2007)

Kim, Coles’s narrator, looks back on his Eton days in the early 1980s. At the age of seventeen, Kim fell for India James, his beautiful young piano teacher — and, somewhat to his surprise, found his affection reciprocated. Of course, these are difficult circumstances in which to conduct a relationship anyway, but Kim’s eagerness to think the worst does nothing to help. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a neat portrait of a teenage crush as a whirlwind of uncertainty and possibility, a rush of love (or lust, or both) mixed up with doubt. I think the level of foreshadowing in the narration dilutes the novel’s impact somewhat, but, in general, this is a worthwhile debut.

William Coles’s website
Legend Press
The Well-Tempered Clavier blogged elsewhere: Reading Matters; Stuck in a Book; Musings from a Muddy Island.

Simon Lelic, The Facility (2011)

Lelic’s debut, Rupture, played about with the conventions of the police procedural to produce an interesting examination of bullying, and the issue of where our sympathies should lie if someone who is bullied takes extreme measures. The author’s follow-up novel, The Facility, looked set to do a similar thing with a different subgenre and moral issue, namely the near-future political thriller, and the issue of government responses to security threats – but it’s not quite as successful.

Several years hence, a ‘Unified Security Act’ has been passed in the UK, which essentially allows the government to go to any length in the name of maintaining security. A secret hospital/prison has been established, and a number of people detained there without explanation. We follow three protagonists: Arthur Priestley, one of the imprisoned; Henry Graves, governor of the facility; and Tom Clarke, the journalist approached by Priestley’s wife, Julia, who believes her husband has been detained under false pretences.

Thinking back to Rupture’s brilliant handling of multiple first-person voices, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment that The Facility’s third-person narrative voices weren’t as sharply delineated. But Lelic has a knack for creating a sparse atmosphere that reflects the austere nature of the facility.

The novel could be seen as inverting the stereotypical trajectory of this kind of story, in that it’s less concerned with revealing the great conspiracy of silence at its heart than with keeping things hidden – for example, it’s not until a third of the way through that we learn why the facility was established (to quarantine people with some unspecified disease), and there’s a general sense of murkiness to proceedings throughout. This is an interesting approach, one that closes off the possibility of easy answers to the problems it raises; but I think it also makes it difficult for the novel to really examine those problems. Though there are some moments that reveal moral complexity, overall I feel that this novel doesn’t treat its issues in the same depth that Rupture did its. The Facility is good as far as it goes; I just wish it went a bit further.

Simon Lelic’s website
Extract from the novel
The Facility reviewed elsewhere: Metro; Sunday Herald.

Catherine O’Flynn, What Was Lost (2007)

I was looking forward to reading this, as it sounded just the sort of quirky book that I enjoy. And parts of it were just that — but the whole didn’t quite hang together.

In 1984, ten-year-old Kate Meaney decides to set up her own detective agency, covering her Birmingham neighbourhood and nearby Green Oaks. After 68 pages following Kate, the action shifts to 2003, where we spend the bulk of the novel’s remainder, in the company of Kurt, a security guard at the Green Oaks Shopping Centre, and Lisa, assistant manager of a record shop. We learn that Kate Meaney went missing back in 1984; by novel’s end, we find out what happened to her.

I find O’Flynn’s control of voice good: she really captures the mixture of precocity and naivety that makes up Kate’s character in the first section; and there are some striking vignettes of people in and around the shopping centre in 2003. Kurt and Lisa don’t come across quite as strongly, but there’s still a sense of the monotony and frustration they feel in their working lives.

Yet I’m not sure that What Was Lost quite works at the broader structural level. There are themes running through the book concerning the limitations of consumerism and the decline of traditional industry, but I don’t see that the main plot fully reflects those themes. It’s tempting to see Kate’s disappearance as representing a loss of innocence; but that reading doesn’t quite hold up for me, because there wasn’t really innocence there to begin with — for example, the 1984 depicted in the book does not appear to be a substantially safer time and place for playing games of girl detective than the 2003. I liked What Was Lost particularly at the beginning, but the rest didn’t live up to that early promise.

Tindal Street Press
What Was Lost blogged elsewhere: Asylum; Dovegreyreader; Farm Lane Books.

The month in reading: January 2010

January 2010 didn’t bring any absolute knockout books my way, but there were some fine reads nevertheless. My favourite book of the month was Robert Jackson Bennett‘s Depression-era fantasy Mr Shivers, which has substantially more subtextual depth than many a quest fantasy I’ve seen over the years.

Silver- and bronze-medal positions for the month go to two very different books. Simon Lelic‘s Rupture is a fine debut novel, centred on a school shooting perpetrated by an apparently placid teacher; and Up the Creek Without a Mullet (reviewed in February, but read in January) is an entertaining account of Simon Varwell‘s travels in search of places with ‘mullet’ in their name.

Bubbling under, but well worth checking out, are Nadifa Mohamed‘s wartime East African odyssey, Black Mamba Boy; and Galileo’s Dream, a historical biography spliced with science fiction (or perhaps vice versa) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not a bad start to the year by any means; but, still, I’m hoping for even greater riches in the months ahead.

Simon Lelic, Rupture (2010)

Why would a teacher walk into an assembly at his school carrying a gun, and open fire? That’s the central question examined in Simon Lelic’s first novel, Rupture. Detective Inspector Lucia May of the Metropolitan Police has been heading the investigation into the shooting perpetrated by Samuel Szajkowski, an apparently nondescript young history teacher. Her superiors would like to think it’s an open-and-shut case, but Lucia’s investigations have painted a picture of Samuel as a man who was out of his depth, bullied by colleagues and pupils alike, and desperately looking for (and failing to find) somewhere to turn. Is it time for Lucia to stand up and declare the teacher as much a ‘victim’ as any of those he killed, even if doing so would threaten her own livelihood?

Lelic has chosen a distinctive structure for his novel, alternating first-person interview transcripts with third-person accounts of Lucia’s travails in the book’s present. What’s more, each of the interviews is with a different character. It’s a tricky feat to juggle all this, but Lelic pulls it off: his interviewees’ voices are all distinctive, and the narrative voice of the third-person chapters is different again.

The author also makes some nicely subtle observations of his characters; it’s often the incidental asides which are particularly revealing. For example, here’s Mr Travis, the school’s headteacher, talking to Lucia and showing just how dismissive he is:

You would not have attended university, I assume?

Well, I stand corrected. And what, pray tell, did you read? No, don’t tell me. It is clear from your expression. [NB. Travis has just rubbished the teaching of history.] And in a way, my dear, you are a case in point. Where has your history degree got you if not further back than where you began? You are, how old? Thirty.

Thirty-two, then. If you had joined the police force when you were sixteen you might be a chief inspector by now. Superintendent.

It’s not just Travis’s assumption that Lucia didn’t go to university which turns one against him, but also his patronising suggestion that she might have been better off without her education, and the implication that to have attained the rank of DI by the age of 32 is not in itself a mark of success. Smartly written, I think.

Lelic is a perceptive writer in other ways, too:  with quite considerable economy, he shows how some of the pupils have been moulded by their circumstances, and how Lucia feels adrift now that she’s no longer one of ‘the younger generation’, even though she’s still far from old. And the author is good with description, as when he depicts Lucia’s impersonal flat (‘the box that she still could not think of as home’), whose unwelcoming atmosphere reflects her own sense of uncertainty.

One of the striking things about Lelic’s characterisation is that we don’t learn much more than the bare bones of Lucia’s life outside the immediate sphere of the tale, and even less about her work colleagues’. This can make some characters seem rather two-dimensional (so, for example, the defining characteristics of Lucia’s fellow-detective Walter are his sexism and lechery); but Lelic would seem too skilled a writer in other areas for this not to be deliberate. What I think he’s trying to do is make us meet Lucia on the same terms as she meets people in her working life – that is, she has to make judgements about people based on relatively brief impressions. This would fit in with the parallels Lelic is apparently trying to draw between Samuel and Lucia (e.g. both are bullied, and both frustrated by the lack of support at work). As I say, I don’t think the strategy entirely succeeds; but it does help tighten the focus of the novel, which is quite effective.

But the thing that niggles me most about Rupture is that, even though the novel deals with a complex moral problem, I think Lelic makes it all a bit too easy for us to decide what’s right == too easy to decide  that Samuel was not a monster, but a fundamentally decent man who was treated appallingly until he snapped, with tragic consequences; too easy to side with Lucia, because the characters with opposing opinions are so loathsome. I can’t help feeling that Lelic undermines his novel somewhat by beginning with the suggestion that matters were not as straightforward as they appeared, then offering an alternative view that’s so morally clear-cut.

Rupture is a novel that works on several levels. Though not primarily intended as a detection, it serves as one well enough (we duly discover at the end that there was more going on than had met the eye up to that point). Mainly, though, it’s a pretty successful character study and examination of how institutions might fail people whom they have a duty to help. Despite its flaws, Rupture is a fine debut, and I look forward to following Lelic’s writing career in the future.

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