A (very) brief plot overview
George Woodbury, a beloved teacher and local hero, is arrested and accused of sexual misconduct towards a group of girls at the school in which he teaches. The novel describes the conflicting emotions felt over the eight months leading up to his trial from the perspective of his wife Joan and his children Sadie and Andrew.
What’s good about it?
First of all, in light of high profile cases in recent years and more open discussions about things such as sexual assault, I think that this is a really important book for Zoe Whittall to have written. When we think of these crimes, we tend to only think of the victim and the perpetrator, but I was interested in this book because it was told from the perspectives of those surrounding the situation who also had their life shaken up. Sadie went from thinking her dad was a hero to suspecting him and Joan went from loving the man she had built a life with to seeing him as a stranger. As a reader, I found those relationship changes interesting to explore. The novel also discusses how other relationships break down, talking about how people who were once friends and neighbours turn on the family even though they were unaware of George’s behaviour, and also how the family themselves deal with their conflicting emotions, turning on themselves and each other at times in the process. This novel shows brilliantly how allegations like this can tear a family and a community in half.
In my opinion, this book reads like a Jodi Picoult novel (and I mean that as a compliment). It’s a gripping subject narrated from various perspectives and culminating in a trial. It’s not a straight forward read and it has you yo-yoing with your own emotions and opinions. It’s incredibly clever and a novel that you could only describe as a page turner. If I were Zoe Whittall, I would be incredibly proud of this book.
I really admire Zoe Whittall for being so brave in her storytelling and for writing about different groups in society and their reactions to allegations like this. As George was seen as a ‘good guy’ by many, he had a lot of people blindly defending him. Support groups were set up and people handed out flyers and leaflets that accused young girls of encouraging behaviour like this. In the real world, you only have to read comments under news stories about rapes to see how some people are of the opinion that things like short skirts mean you’re ‘asking for it’ and that if a woman drinks then she must accept consequences. Whittall writes about these groups brilliantly, showing them as people who truly believe that what they are saying is correct and in some way helpful. The groups offer their support to Sadie, who resists, perfectly highlighting the tensions that surround rape cases and allegations of sexual assault.
This book is at times a painful read. You almost want George to be innocent because his family is so hurt by the accusations, but then you read about the girls who have accused him and you don’t doubt their story. You read about Sadie and Andrew’s turmoil and you want to help them, but then realise that some of the people who have caused their life to fall apart, such as the siblings of the girls who have accused George, need help dealing with what has happened too too. Whittall’s writing is incredibly clever because your emotional response mirrors that of the characters. Your opinion and emotions never settle for too long, just as Joan, Sadie and Andrew’s don’t.
This book is not an easy read, but when dealing with a subject like sexual misconduct how could it be? It’s necessary that this book is a rollercoaster and unflinching in it’s report of the effects of such news on people’s lives. If anything, it’s one of it’s biggest strengths.
What’s not so good?
I didn’t really find the friendship/relationship/crush between Nick and Sadie necessary to the narrative. It served a purpose in a way to show that Sadie’s life had been turned upside down and that she was looking for answers away from reminders of her old life such as her boyfriend Jimmy, but to me this subplot wasn’t wholly needed. If anything, I found Nick a bit of a creep.
Also, I still had a few questions about what happened to Sadie and Andrew at the end of the novel. After becoming so involved in their lives and in their character development, I’d have liked to have finished the book knowing where everything stood in their lives.
Rate Me: 8/10. Zoe Whittall’s novel is brilliantly engaging and a real social commentary for the times. For anyone who sees them self as a feminist, any fans of Jodi Picoult or simply anyone who wants a gripping read, this is one for you.