Would you risk everything for the child you love? Susan Lewis’ Don’t Let Me Go asks the question to which most parents would, naturally, say yes. But Lewis uses her gently unfolding narrative to explore the roles we play within a family – mother, daughter, uncle – and how we go about retaining a sense of ‘self’, and fulfilling our own dreams, in amongst the requirements of those roles. Lewis questions what it means to be a ‘mother’ – is it about giving birth, or about the years of nurturing that go beyond that point? This is a story about our responsibility to children – social and personal – and the ways in which we determine, and teach, what is right, and what is wrong.
The dark shadow of child abuse hangs over Charlotte Nicholls and her little daughter Chloe as they leave England for New Zealand, trying to make a fresh start in the bosom of a complicated, fractured extended family. The story is slow to get going, with the early chapters used to introduce the various segments of this complex family of adoptees, step-relatives and in-laws. Adding to the complexity, we slowly learn that Charlotte and Chloe have changed their names as part of the process of running from the secrets of their old life. I’d encourage readers to stick with this book as it only truly hits its stride about halfway in, when the breadcrumbs offered in the first part of the novel begin to develop into shocking and thought-provoking scenarios.
I could leave it at that really, and conclude by saying that this is a moving family saga that rewards a reader’s initial patience. Or [SPOILER ALERT], I could reveal that Chloe is not in fact Charlotte’s daughter, but rather a child on Charlotte’s caseload as a social worker. Little Chloe (then known as Ottile) spent her first years with a paedophile father and a schizophrenic mother who was eventually killed by her husband. Charlotte (then known as Alex) faced the heartbreaking decision of whether to leave this child in the hands of ‘they system’, to battle through a lifetime of foster carers and an uncertain future, or to whisk her away to safety – albeit an anonymous, precarious new life.
As legal battles and life on the run take their heavy toll, the reader is left to question whether Charlotte really did the right thing? Is it OK to take the law into your own hands – especially when someone else’s life (the life of a child) is in question? Further to this, the novel tackles questions about cultural and societal norms, the legal rights of parents and children, and whether we will ever find a way to tackle the horrendous cycles of abuse that social workers, police and health professionals must confront every day.
Don’t Let Me Go is a continuation of UK author Lewis’ earlier novel No Child of Mine, but it contains enough background information to be read alone. On a lighter note, it also piqued my interest in aspects of Maori culture and contains some beautiful evocations of the New Zealand landscape. Unfortunately often these beautiful descriptions of the environment in which Chloe and Charlotte live only emphasise the gloomy nature of their plight.
Don’t Let Me Go is published in Australia by Random House and I thank them kindly for my review copy, made available via NetGalley.