In Elizabeth George’s previous book, With No One As Witness, a senior police officer’s pregnant wife is gunned down in London by a 12-year-old boy in an apparently random act. This book tells the story of how that shooting came to happen.
The three Campbell children are abandoned on their aunt’s doorstep by their feckless grandmother, months before the shooting. They are mixed-race children with deep-seated damage: their alcoholic father was killed in front of them a few years ago and their mother has long been in a mental hospital. Ness, 15, is deeply alienated and truant, and quickly becomes a drug dealer’s girlfriend. Toby, 7, is mildly retarded and attracts bullies. Well-meaning, eleven-year-old Joel is his brother’s protector. Their Aunt Kendra is wholly unprepared, emotionally or logistically, to become a mother to these troubled children.
Joel, Ness, and Kendra all proceed towards tragedy, through a combination of bad choices, poor options, inadequate coping skills, grevious miscommunication, and events that are beyond their control.
George paints an unsettling picture of a family at the edge. Each of the principals is strongly drawn, each one’s actions makes sense of a sort, each one’s demons compels them to fuck up. We know that ultimately Joel will kill a woman and we watch despairingly as he makes the choices that box him in to his destiny.
Not easy reading, but compelling.