As the author notes in his postscript, ‘an element of greyness [is imported to the novel through]… explanation of the law which underpins the narrative’. This is a perspicacious comment. With its detailed description of a newly qualified solicitor’s experiences in family courts in the 1970s, at times this procedure-heavy novel reads like a law school case study.
Written by a former solicitor whose career (it is understood) was spent practising in the area of child protection, the law is realistically and – I presume – accurately portrayed. But it is difficult to get involved in the scenarios presented. This is not a Grisham-style edge-of-your-seat courtroom thriller. Instead it is, and deliberately so, set on a series of grey Wednesdays at Tottenham Magistrates’ Court.
Some of the cases our hero deals with are superficially interesting: a teenage daughter on a collision course with her violent parents; an at-risk child whose mother is having hallucinations; a suspected case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. However, such characters are never developed. They remain bit players in a legal ‘drama’ that lacks just that; it is as plodding as reality can be.
Author: John Ellison
More gripping than the adventures in court are the relationships outside it. Robert begins a promising affair with the beautiful, remote Beth, before finding a more intimate connection with social worker Jessica (conveniently the source of much of his work). Their growing closeness is handled with patience and is one of the most satisfying parts of the book.
Yet overall it was difficult to discern the purpose of the novel. Is it commentary on the ‘bad old days’ before a child’s welfare became paramount in the 1989 act? Is it semi-autobiographical? Is this a period the author thought should be recorded for posterity? It is not clear.
What, then, to make of a fairly linear tale of a year in the life of a specialist solicitor dealing with care issues on the cusp of a new age? Ellison has worked hard to recreate what feels like an authentic vision of the era, but it seems oddly isolated – a fictional memoir from a bygone period lacking any vital statement about today’s world. That might be intentional, but it left this reader puzzled and a little cold – plot sacrificed to recollections of the law.
Tom Garbett is a solicitor