Review: The Son-In-Law; Charity Norman

“You were so taken up by your own pain… did you fail to notice hers?” (4 stars) 

Source- personal copy

Published by Allen & Unwin- July 2013

I read the Kindle edition. The paperback is 384 pages. 

How do you ever forgive the unforgiveable? Can you? This is the thought-provoking subject matter of The Son-In-Law, a gripping, heart-breaking family drama from Charity Norman. 

Joseph Scott has just left prison after serving a three year sentence for manslaughter. The victim? His wife Zoe. Their three young children witnessed her traumatic death and have been living with their grandparents ever since, but now Joseph desperately wants to reunite with them. He lost everything that traumatic night: his wife, his children and his job- and has been in anguish ever since, but can he atone for his mistakes when nothing will ever be the same? 

This was such an engrossing read with characters that I really came to care about. Perfectly paced and with elements of drama, tension and anguish, it opens with a flashback transcript of the harrowing 999 call that Joseph’s daughter Scarlet made to the police on the night of her mother’s death and the emotion just keeps on building from that point. Cleverly told from different narrative perspectives throughout, it offers an insight into the complex lives of the central characters of the story- Joseph himself, Scarlet (now aged thirteen) and Hannah, Scarlet’s grandmother. Also central to the plot are the helpful observations of Lester, a skilled, empathic social worker assigned to the broken family by the courts. 

You would think that the reader would be naturally predisposed to dislike Joseph from the outset, merely because of his actions, but it is clear that there is more to the story than what there first appears. I found myself actually sympathising with him as it is evident that he is so desperate to reconnect with his children, which is very movingly portrayed. As the novel unfolds with some clever twists and turns, you learn more about Zoe and come to understand that although Joseph’s actions were indeed very, very wrong, he was himself in a desperate state of mind. That is not to justify what he did of course, just to explain that more becomes clear as the story progresses. Readers will naturally find their sympathy switching between Joseph and Hannah and questioning how they would themselves act in such a situation. 

Central to the core of this riveting story are Scarlet and her brothers Theo and Ben. Theo is now ten and has clearly been horrifically impacted by what happened to his mother- still a bed-wetter and now playing up at school following the release of his father. Although still a young boy, he naturally worries that he too has inherited some of his dad’s darker tendencies. Ben was just a baby when his mother was killed and of course cannot remember his father- now four he is naturally very close to his grandmother and grandfather, Freddie, and worries that he will hurt them and betray them by reconnecting with his dad. The confusion and conflicting emotions of all three kids are very concisely drawn. 

Scarlet is such a vivid narrator, she retains such strong memories of the night her mother died and though close to her grandmother, her mum’s death is not actually spoken about within the household and her dad is never mentioned. It is as if he is something of a bogeyman. It’s not as though she has been poisoned against her dad per se, just that he is never talked about and her perception about him as a result of this is that he is something to be afraid of. Scarlet is not aware of elements of her mother’s background that perhaps have some bearing on the incident and remains painfully in the dark about the entire situation. She is understandably afraid of reconnecting with her father, particularly as she wants to remain strong for her brothers- almost becoming a mini ‘mum’ to them in Zoe’s absence. I loved getting to know Scarlet and the bond that she shared with her grandfather literally made me want to weep. 

Hannah and Freddie are very memorable too. How would you react if the person who killed your only child wanted to come back into your grandchildren’s lives once more and turn everything they know upside down? Since Zoe’s death they have put everything on hold- their own retirement plans, their social lives- to raise three young children; it is almost like they themselves are starting to be parents once more in a late stage in their lives. They are naturally terrified that Joseph will take the youngsters away from them and feel deep hatred at what he has done, yet deep down are unable to forgive themselves for preventing what happened. They too share strong elements of guilt. Though I felt unbelievably sorry for their predicament and whilst I fell in love with Freddie who remained the voice of reason throughout most of the plot, despite his own tumultuous circumstances, I still found it hard to like Hannah. I’m not sure why this was, but I did feel that she was continually unwilling to act in the best interests of the children and that she was quite a cold human being. 

Like I said: this book will make you think (a lot) and consider both sides of the story! 

I’ve down-marked this book by a star for a couple of reasons: for one, I felt the secondary character of Rosie was simply unnecessary and a bit silly. She didn’t particularly fuel much purpose within the plot and the story-thread between her and Joseph towards the end of the book appeared to be integrated merely to span the novel out a bit more and add a romantic element to the storyline which I didn’t especially believe in; it felt contrived. Also, after everything else that had occurred, I did feel perhaps that the new dynamics in the relationship between Hannah, Joseph and Freddie became slightly unbelievable- even for the sake of the children. This was a book with so many layers that it ended on a rather unrealistic, sunshine and roses’ note, which left me feeling slightly dubious. 

The Son-In-Law is a powerfully told story of love, forgiveness and family and a book that I think will be appreciated by fans of Diane Chamberlain or Heather Gudenkauf, with its insightful look into both crime and mental illness. I’m glad that this author is now on my radar and I will be looking out for more novels by her to read in future. With all of its complex themes, this novel would also make an excellent book group choice.

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3 responses to “Review: The Son-In-Law; Charity Norman

  1. I reviewed this book for Lovereading last year and really enjoyed it. More recently, I read After the Fall by the same author, which I thought was even better. Had a brief Twitter chat with the author herself as well, which was nice – I always like it when an author takes the trouble to reply.

  2. Pingback: January Reading Analysis | my good bookshelf·

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