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The Guilty One - Lisa Ballantyne UPDATE - 3/16/13 - see link at bottom

In London’s very gentrified neighborhood of Islington an eight-year-old boy is murdered in a playground. The suspect is slight, eleven-year-old, Sebastian Croll, a friend of the victim. Seb is an odd sort, removed, serene in the presence of danger and pressure, until, that is, he breaks down and tosses tantrums that any three-year-old would find to be fine examples of the art. His home life leaves much to be desired, with a dodgy, self-medicating mom and an abusive, remote father. Is young Seb a sociopathic monster, someone spotted in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even a victim?

Daniel Hunter is Sebastian’s lawyer. He sees much of himself in his young client, knows how possible it is for children to be ill-treated by the world and by government, and wants to help him. Daniel had had plenty of trouble of his own as a kid. He never knew his father. Mom was a drug addict, and social services shuttled him from foster home to foster home. Daniel had some rage issues that kept the loco in loco parentis. Daniel’s final stop on the substitute parent merry-go-round was Minnie Flynn. It is the relationship between Daniel and Minnie that is the core element here. And what a core it is.

Structurally the novel alternates chapters between the mystery of Sebastian’s did-he-or-didn’t-he and a journey back through Daniel’s personal history. While both tales are fascinating, Daniel’s tale is riveting. We know early on that, as an adult, he has received news of his mother’s death, and we also are told that he had been estranged from her for a very long time. The second mystery in the book is “why?”

Minnie Flynn had suffered a loss that most of us could not bear. Maybe she shared life on her small Cumbrian farm with a series of foster kids to fill that need. But she took a special shine to young Daniel, and, despite the mayhem he causes when he comes under her care, he takes a shining to her. Although there is no romance involved, this is a very, very powerful love story. You will need tissues. Daniel was a lot to handle as a kid. Living with a junkie for a mother he was subjected to more than the usual sorts of childhood challenges. Most five-year-olds are not beaten up by their mother’s low-life boyfriend, or bear witness to low behavior of many sorts. No wonder he was so angry. And then the state decides that his mother is not fit to keep her son and Daniel begins the grand tour of foster homes. It would have taken someone with the patience of a saint to cope with his rage. And while Minnie does indeed have a breaking point, it is she, ultimately, who offers Daniel a safe haven, not only from the world, but from himself. She is one of those parental sorts who actually can set boundaries. She is one who can see the potential in Daniel beneath the maelstrom. And it is she who changes the direction of his life.

I was struck by how similar was the feeling I had for Minnie to the feeling engendered in reading about Talmadge in the recently released fabulous novel, The Orchardist. Both are strong, good people, struggling desperately to make sense of lives in which they have suffered crushing misfortune. As with Talmadge, you will love Minnie. Ballantyne paints her with a range of colors, not all of which are complimentary, but every one of which is understandable, and very human.

Ballantyne applies the same skill she uses in portraying the loving Minnie to give us the willies about Sebastian. He may or may not be guilty, but he certainly seems the sort of kid you would be reluctant to turn your back on. Other characters pop in and out, but it is Sebastian, Minnie and Daniel who hold our attention.

Ballantyne makes deft use of avian imagery to support her characterizations and themes. A few examples. First, soon after young Daniel is taken in by Minnie:
“Look!” she said to him, stopping and pointing at the sky. “do you see it?”
“What?”
“A kestrel! See it, with the pointed wings and long tail?”
The bird sculpted a wide arc in the sky and then perched on a high treetop. Daniel saw it, and raised his hand to see more clearly.
“They’re beauties. We have to watch them from getting the chickens when they’re small, but I think they’re elegant, don’t you?”
Later he has taken in the image, made it his own:
He felt strange: bereft, alone, cruel—like a falcon he had seen on his way to school one day, intent on a post, dismembering a field mouse. He didn’t know where his mother was. It felt as if she had been stolen.
And as he feels the claws of his own guilt:
he felt darkness circling around him and alighting on his chest, hooded, wicked, shining black like a raven. Daniel put a palm to his bare chest, as if to relieve the sting of the claws. He had left her, yet her leaving still seemed the greater. As he turned and turned again he felt the death beyond the loss that he had created. Her death was heavier, dark, like a bird of prey against the night sky.
A visit to Hadrian’s Wall sings as an image of permanence. There are several mentions of sliced flesh that might raise hackles. And you might keep an eye out for the butterflies that flutter across the page on occasion. Ballantyne does not beat her imagery to death, but sprinkles it throughout her tale to add flavor, like a well moderated condiment.

Another element the book addresses is the British legal system, that treats children as adults, much the same as in the US, so that should feel familiar for American readers.

There is also much here on the notion of home. Young Daniel, effectively, if not entirely an orphan, yearns for a real, safe home, with a real, safe mam. But what might one expect had he had the home he yearned for with his biological mother? Seb has a home, but it is a toxic environment that has either made or enhanced his peculiarities. Might Daniel have become like Seb under different circumstances? How much is innate, and how much is induced? Nature vs nurture. And what is home for Minnie? Why would she remain in a place that witnessed her greatest loss when she could easily have returned to her native Ireland?

The bottom line here is that The Guilty One is an outstanding novel, a true page-turner that will keep you rapt until you finish it. There is artistry to the writing and content to consider beyond the tale itself. But the strength here is the portrayal of compelling characters, and effective writing of powerful human emotion. Quite an amazing first novel. Your eyes will leak. Reading The Guilty One is not at all a guilty pleasure, but a pure one.

==================================UPDATES

3/7/2013 - There is a lovely description by the author of how she constructed the book. It includes the following
This book is very much Daniel’s story – of being a young, damaged and violent child, but someone who grew to become a largely functional, caring adult. Sebastian, the young boy on trial in the book, is there to throw Daniel’s story into relief.
A very warm interview with the author, from Scotsman.com. Not a bit of haggis in sight.

5/11/13 - From The York Press - Longlist announced for the 2013 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award