Book Review: The Child Who by Simon Lelic
A gruesome murder has thrown a British county up-in-arms, and Leo Curtice finds himself the attorney randomly assigned to defend the murderer–a 12 year old boy who killed and sexually assaulted an 11 year old girl. He finds himself seeking to understand what would make a 12 year old kill and finding more empathy for the boy than those around him think is allowable. Meanwhile, threats start coming in against his own family, including his 15 year old daughter.
This is a ripped from the headlines style novel that falls far short of others in its genre. Apparently, Britain has a real problem with child murderers. The thing is, though, when you’re writing a ripped from the headlines type story, your fictional version needs to bring something to the table that the real life stories and newspaper articles can’t or don’t. Room by Emma Donoghue is an excellent example of this. Telling the story from the perspective of the boy raised in the room his kidnapped mother is held hostage in was a truly unique and mind-blowing way to get a new perspective on the rash of kidnappings and hostage situations in the US. This story, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of a defense attorney, which is almost exactly what you would get in the press. There is nothing new or fresh. Curtice sympathizes with the boy killer, but that is not true fresh perspective.
It’s also problematic when you google about child murderers in Britain and the stories that come up are far more fascinating than the novel you just read. Stories like Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two ten year olds who tortured and murdered a two year old. Or Mary Bell an eleven year old who killed and tortured other children without remorse. In contrast our story here is about a twelve year old boy who hits on an eleven year old, is rebuffed, and proceeds to knock her down, bludgeon her, and assault her with a stick. Horrible? Yes. But with far more motive than two ten year olds abducting and killing a two year old. See the difference? The true to life stories push us to question and understand human development and behavior. The fake one seems rather easily written off as a vicious twelve year old who can’t handle the word no from a girl he likes. It’s as if the author was trying to play off of a phenomenon in Britain but missed the crux of what makes it so fascinating. Twelve is hardly a youth in the way that ten is.
Then there is the whole side-plot about Curtice’s daughter. From the beginning of the book you think she was murdered eventually somehow in some connection with the case. Wanting to find out how this occurred is what keeps the reader interested and the plot moving in spite of the problems addressed earlier. This, though, is ultimately a red herring of a plot point. The daughter was a runaway. Yes, the father didn’t know it at first, but she just ran away because of all the stress from the case. That’s it. As a reader, it felt like Lelic played a dirty trick on me, and I really didn’t like that.
Ultimately, Lelic tried to write a ripped from the headlines style story akin to Room, but he failed on all of the points that made Room such a hit. There is no unique viewpoint, no valid suspense, no daring willingness to take things even further in fiction than they went in real life. The book is a disappointment.
2 out of 5 stars