Author: Charity Norman
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Charity Norman’s third novel, The Son-in-Law, delivers all that I have come to expect from this talented contemporary writer, and more. I’ve been a fan since her first novel, Freeing Grace, and Norman is now firmly on my “highly recommended” list; the way she takes hold of a difficult issue and brings it alive so it can’t be ignored is admirable. With The Son-in-Law, Norman examines the contentious topic of child custody through a range of memorable and convincing characters, but at its heart it’s a story of reunion and redemption.
The moment Joseph Scott snapped changed his life forever. One moment he was arguing with his wife Zoe; the next she was on the floor, dead. His children saw him strike her, watched her fall and hit her head; his daughter called an ambulance while Joseph attempted CPR. It was a damning moment, a defining moment. Convicted of manslaughter, Joseph is labelled a wife-beater and sent to jail while Scarlet, Theo and Ben are cared for by his late wife’s parents. Three years later, Joseph is out on parole, which is where the story picks up. He’s had plenty of time to consider his future (as well as his past), and what he wants most of all is a future with his children in it. Will his children give him the chance to redeem himself?
Zoe’s parents, Hannah and Frederick, are horrified when Joseph contacts them asking to see the children. They hoped he would just go away quietly once he was out on parole and leave the children alone, but deep down they knew this day would come. Despite their best efforts to dissuade Joseph, he is insistent and a legal battle is soon under way; Joseph, it seems, still has parental rights, something Hannah and Frederick thought he’d given up the day their daughter died. When Joseph wins the right to see the children, with gradually increasing access, Hannah particularly is torn between her own intense emotions and the needs of her grandchildren.
The Son-In-Law is told from the conflicting and contrasting viewpoints of Hannah, Joseph and Scarlet, bringing great emotional depth to the story. This device clearly shows the conflicting feelings the protagonists have for each other and for their choices. While it’s understandable (and fair) that the opposing adults would both be given a voice, I was really pleased to see 13-year-old Scarlet given a voice as well. It’s a gentle, poignant but pointed reminder that in custody cases it’s not all about the adults and what they need or want – it’s about what the children need. Take a moment and consider the conflict a child feels in such situations – torn between love and blame, wanting to please and wanting to hurt at the same time. Early on, Scarlet is adamant she does not want to see her father, which is what Hannah desperately wants to hear and Scarlet thinks is right, but really, she’s torn between blaming him for her mother’s death and still loving him. Reading Hannah and Joseph’s perspectives had me shifting from blame to support to frustration to support again for both of them at different times; reading Scarlet’s perspective gave much-needed grounding. Case worker Lester was another much-needed voice of reason, urging the protagonists (and readers) to remember who most often comes out as losers in custody cases.
As we all know, there are two sides to every story (some say there are three – yours, mine and the truth) and The Son-in-Law quickly demonstrates this fact, revealing that all is not what it seemed when it came to Joseph and Zoe’s marriage. In addition to the issue of where the children belong, Norman explores equally challenging issues such as ageing, mental illness, as well as grief and loss. Each of these are treated with compassion and warmth, but again, with the gentle reminder that these things happen everyday and can’t be boxed away. Ignoring them won’t make them go away or any easier to deal with. Perhaps if the respective characters had talked about some of the issues – especially mental illness – then perhaps the situation would have been vastly different. I think Norman is sending a strong message with this aspect of the book that it’s OK to talk about mental illness – it’s an illness, not something to be ashamed of.
Of course, underneath all of these issues is the question of forgiveness. Should Hannah and Frederick forgive Joseph? Can they? Should the children forgive their father? Can they? Should Joseph forgive Hannah and Frederick for not supporting them when it came to Zoe’s own issues, and later, for cutting off all contact with his children? Can he? The Son-in-Law is a book that makes the reader question what they would do in the same situation … and depending on their own experience/s, the answer may well be different. Whatever the conclusion, readers can’t put their head in the sand. I love books that make me think, even if the subject matter is a bit close to home, which at times, it was – this is one of those books, without a doubt. As the characters teeter on the precipice of what’s right for them and what’s really right, readers will be drawn into a family drama, into an “it could be me” story that is bound to pull at their heartstrings – hard!
Charity Norman, you’ve nailed it again. Thank you for writing so, so well and capturing the drama of everyday life with your compassionate, but unrelenting, touch. You’ve blended tragedy, loss and grief with hope, love and forgiveness to form a thoughtful and engaging read.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: I turned to my old stand-by with this one – popcorn. A freshly made bowl (maybe two) and I was set.