‘Life can change in a moment. Forgiveness can take much longer’ … so says the cover blurb for Charity Norman’s third novel, The Son-In-Law, which hooks the reader from the very first lines. The book opens with the transcript of a 999 call, which is in use as court evidence. A frantic caller tells the operator that her mum is unconscious and her dad is attempting CPR. As they wait for an ambulance, the operator gently pushes the caller to describe the scene. She reveals her name is Scarlet and she’s ten years old. Her two young brothers are also in the room. Everyone is crying – one brother is hiding. Her Dad is frantically attempting to revive her mother even though, Scarlet reveals, it was a punch from her father that left her mother dying on the floor. Scarlet cries into the phone ‘Is my mum going to be alright?’ As a reader, it’s already clear that whatever the outcome, no one is going to be ‘alright’ after this.
From this dramatic beginning, The Son-In-Law tells the story of how devoted husband and father Joseph Scott was pushed to the point of killing his wife, Zoe. He emerges from prison after serving time for Zoe’s death and longs to reconnect with the children he hasn’t seen for several years. The children – Scarlet, Ben and Theo – are now in the care of Zoe’s parents, Hannah and Frederick, who continue to grieve for their beloved lost daughter. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of the family members as Joseph tries to overcome his guilt and move on with his life, while Hannah does her best to ensure he never has another chance to damage his children’s already fragile world.
Norman is a skilled story teller with a great talent for slowly revealing the details of her complex characters’ lives. I was lucky enough to interview her recently and ask a few questions about her fascinating life and intricate plots [read the interview here]. In this book, Norman poses the kinds of moral questions that are superficially black and white – would you ever forgive your daughter’s killer, for example? The answer seems obvious, but at every step of this family’s journey, the reader is asked to acknowledge the nuanced tapestry of events that have brought about Zoe’s death. There is no simple answer or easy moral position. It is impossible not to feel great sorrow for Hannah as she mourns for her precious daughter; and yet, equally strong is the love Joseph feels for his children – is one parent’s love more valid than another’s?
The Son-In-Law treats each generation within this family saga with equal respect. Hannah and Frederick are intelligent people with their own interesting back story, not stereotypical doddering grandparents. Similarly, Scarlet’s teenage perspective and the differing responses of her brothers are all shown as valid in their own ways; the adults do not always know what’s best. As the legal case for Joseph to have access to and, eventually, custody of his children progresses, The Son-In-Law asks us to look well beyond the surface when it comes to issues like domestic violence, mental health and the penal system. Norman makes use of her own experience as a criminal barrister, specialising in family law, in her realistic descriptions of the painful back-and-forth communications between the family members and their legal representatives as they try to come to some agreement.
I was lost in thought for days after reading this intense and compassionate story. It struck me how vulnerable adults can become in the face of love for their children. It also looks at the fact that what’s ‘best’ for children in any custody situation may require huge sacrifice on the part of parents and carers, who – understandably – may bring their personal desires for revenge and control to the negotiations. Finally, it alerts us to the hidden costs of mental illness within families – such as the stress and expense endured by the partner of someone who is ill as they try to continue living an outwardly functional life while their home life is in chaos. Without wishing to give too many spoilers, the slow, subtle revelation of the impact of mental illness on Zoe and Joseph’s marriage is heartbreaking.
This is a book that will hold your attention right to the last page and will leave you debating its moral dilemmas for weeks to come. Highly recommended for book club reading or sharing with a friend!
The Son-In-Law is published by Allen & Unwin and I thank them kindly for my review copy.
Click here for my fascinating interview this talented, inspirational writer.