The Child by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Expected publication: June 27th 2017 by Berkley Books

As an old house is demolished in a gentrifying section of London, a workman discovers a tiny skeleton, buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters, it’s a story that deserves attention. She cobbles together a piece for her newspaper, but at a loss for answers, she can only pose a question: Who is the Building Site Baby?

As Kate investigates, she unearths connections to a crime that rocked the city decades earlier: A newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward in a local hospital and was never found. Her heartbroken parents were left devastated by the loss.

But there is more to the story, and Kate is drawn—house by house—into the pasts of the people who once lived in this neighborhood that has given up its greatest mystery. And she soon finds herself the keeper of unexpected secrets that erupt in the lives of three women—and torn between what she can and cannot tell…

 

I absolutely adored Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, so I was all-too eager to get my little hands on this one when I heard about The Child. Of course, that’s the problem with not reading blindly, isn’t it–with already being familiar with an author’s previous works: you go in with expectations, undoubtedly heightening your expectations on the author, and it doesn’t always pan out. When that happens, those reads seem to fall harder than if you’d never met their predecessors in the first place. But that didn’t happen here! This follow-up was awesome! Unfortunately, that’s what happened here.

Not too far into Fiona Barton’s sophomore novel, The Child, I realized that this one wasn’t nearly as clever as her debut, The Widow, and wasn’t nearly as captivating either. Read as a “rush job,” without the finesse and nuance of her previous novel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the follow-up to a blockbuster movie–you know, the ones where you can tell the studio was just rushing to churn the next one out to capitalize on the fanfare of the last one.

Have you ever read a novel and just knew you could pick out the characters on the street if you saw them? Their mannerisms are so real, their dialogue so witty, so poignant, so enthralling, that you recall a whole slew of their quotes from memory. These characters come alive on the page and delight you, make you want to be them—or at least kidnap them and keep them as your new bestie. Well, you won’t find that here, people. These characters didn’t saunter around, exuding their very essence across the page like in the previous novel.

Though, to be fair, it’s not all cons in this one. One of the better aspects of this novel is that Barton uses the format of short chapters to swiftly draw her reader in and keep them turning pages. It’s a style that I now recognize her for. That technique makes the read seem shorter, faster, and is a true hallmark of the modern-day thriller, which was once again used brilliantly here. Well, to an extent. Of all things, The Child was chalked full of filler. I could almost palpably feel myself ripping at the cotton-like filler to get down to the meat, the core of the novel. Some of the chapters were completely useless to the plot as a whole and slowed the read down to a near-screeching halt, contradictory to the goals of the short chapters, placing The Child very squarely into the “cozy thriller” category and loosening the tauntness that readers look for in a good mystery thriller.

All I needed for complete this novel was a cuppa Earl Grey and a biscuit. For some, this’ll work brilliantly, but I can see the flatly written characters turning off character piece buffs, while the added family drama will turn off mystery thrill seekers, stripping away its well-roundedness and landing this one in a category for a very specific kind of reader. It’s not that the characters here were unlikeable, more like they were just silly. Crying at the slightest stimulus. Sighing and huffing and wedge-driving over men who, for the majority of the read, weren’t much more than cliché sketches of cheaters and adulterers themselves. There were moments where I actually imagined them fawning and fanning themselves at the thought of these men, swooning in their own misery, and that made the read feel long, like I was trudging through used Kleenex the entire time.

Let’s go ahead and address this here, shall we?

There’s so much chatter in the book world about (female) characters who are unlikeable for being shallow or crass—The Girl on the Train immediately comes to mind—but these characters in The Child were equally unlikeable for a completely different reason: because they were so spineless, weak and lacking of any motivation that I could get behind for the vast majority of the novel.

**SPOILER** You can’t toss in driving motivation in the last quarter of the novel and expect me to suddenly care; no, I’ve already been too turned off by the past 300 pages to care at this point: Writer 101. **END SPOILER**

There were a lot of tears in this book, even moments of rushing out of a grocery store, abandoning their grocery cart, because the noise was too unbearable. These characters all needed a swift kick in the ass if you ask me.

Hmm, and the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will definitely say that I’m not sure how I feel about it. It could’ve been a phenomenal ending, but it was executed poorly and via unlikeable characters, so, in the end, it just felt like a hastily done soap opera ending. There were loads of other sections that could have been scrapped in favor of perfecting the ending, believe me—and the fact that the ending was held up by sappy, weak-willed characters just ruined it, like spilling liquid on a watercolor painting. **MILD SPOILER** I get the feeling that it was meant to be a tear-jerker ending but came off as vaguely melodramatic the way that it was handled, **END SPOILER** which, all in all, landed The Child with a average score of 3 stars ***

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Fiona BartonMy career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.
But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

The worm of this book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know. It took the liberation of my career change to turn that fascination into a tale of a missing child, narrated by the wife of the man suspected of the crime, the detective leading the hunt, the journalist covering the case and the mother of the victim.

Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow is available now in the UK, and around the world in the coming months. However, the sudden silence of my characters feels like a reproach and I am currently working on a second book. My husband and I are living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Sparky, crowing.

Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell

Paperback, 480 pages
Published January 6th 2009 by Berkley (first published 1994)

Bebe Moore Campbell’s Brothers and Sisters, originally published by Putnam in 1994* in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, is a true testament to what I wish we could see more of on bestseller lists today. Published during an era of growing racial tensions (though what era doesn’t have that?) and political outspokenness through hip-hop music, this novel brought to life the realities of being an educated and successful modern-day African American woman. Stereotypes were debunked and explored, and here Campbell helped to set new standards in literature for femininity and “blackness,” while also probing such sensitive topics as the church, the pros and troubles of racial solidarity and reaching across the racial line to find friendship. The characters that the late Campbell portrayed here were realistic and 3-dimensional; the tension that she painted in the air was palpable with the turn of every page, like a heartbeat pulsing throughout the chapters.

Brothers and Sisters was a read that featured relatable dialogue that easily flowed off the tip of the tongue; Campbell’s use of vernacular outside of the workplace and in the “mean streets” of LA beautifully contrasted with dialogue that went on within the walls of the workplace to create a masterful portrayal of what it is like to live in two worlds at the same time, from dealing with stress from the professional expectations of peers in a racist and sexist environment to simultaneously surviving in a world equally hostile outside of the workplace doors. Deceit, mistrust, racism, sexism, accusations of rape, love, dating, social and corporate ladders, competition and banding together to survive in hostile waters all play a role in this novel.

The trouble that many novels have in this genre is that they do not come off as authentic. The dialogue is stilted or unfittingly formal in areas where authenticity is needed or ragged in situations where a sophisticated touch is being attempted by the author. There is a finesse to portraying this double consciousness (for those W.E.B. DuBois followers), this world of African Americanism that is honestly a world within itself, and it is difficult to find an author who depicts this lifestyle—this social setting—accurately and with the tautness and stress that it carries with in real, everyday life. The beauty in which Campbell offered that to her readers here is to be applauded. Following Esther Jackson through a day in her world will bring you out the other side more conscious of societal pressures at play if you weren’t already, deeply entertained and honestly tickled by the thoughts that these characters think but don’t always say. This one is a read for anyone, because there’s something for everyone here if your mind is open.

Make no mistake: I love a good thriller, a thought-provoking character piece or the occasional humor-filled antics of chick lit with a verve and vigor that you can see in this blog, but it’s novels like this that I wish we could see more of in the spotlight today.  5 stars *****

 

*The cover used here is from the 2009 reprint publication of this novel by Berkley.