Review

Well-drawn characters, multiple perspectives and plot twists

Author Fiona Barton (above) skilfully employs the 'show, don't tell' technique in her slow reveal of the demons that haunt the characters in The Child.
Author Fiona Barton (above) skilfully employs the 'show, don't tell' technique in her slow reveal of the demons that haunt the characters in The Child.PHOTO: JENNY LEWIS

FICTION

THE CHILD

By Fiona Barton

Transworld Publishers/Paperback/ 416 pages/$27.82/ Books Kinokuniya

4/5 stars

Protagonist Kate Waters' exploits as a journalist in search of a dead baby's identity ring with familiarity to me, a crime reporter.


Author Fiona Barton skilfully employs the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique in her slow reveal of the demons that haunt the characters in The Child (above). PHOTO: TRANSWORLD

When an old building in London that is undergoing gentrification is demolished, the skeleton of a baby, left buried for years, is discovered.

This catches the eye of Kate, who covertly begins her investigations while trying to stay under the radar from a more experienced colleague.

Unbeknown to her, a grieving mother named Angela Irving and book editor Emma Simmonds believe they have a personal connection to the baby and their lives converge in the course of Kate's investigations.

Barton's decades of journalism experience shine through in her depiction of Kate's life, from the dynamics of her newsroom - "Have you got any story ideas? We've got a news meeting in half an hour and we need to come up with three good ones" - down to her quirks, such as stashing interesting news clippings at the bottom of her handbag, to be followed up.

But perhaps what makes the novel most convincing is Kate's methodological approach in chasing leads from scraps of information and how she reorganises, with cub reporter Joe Jackson in tow, each time they hit a dead end.

From sifting through old cuttings for clues to a baby who disappeared from a hospital between 20 and 40 years earlier, to Kate's initial disappointment when the woman they are led to turns up no direct link to the child, readers will find themselves kept on their toes as they navigate realistic plot twists.

With the story told primarily through the three women's first- person narratives, it is not difficult to empathise and relate to each of the characters, as Barton skilfully employs the age-old "show, don't tell" technique in her slow reveal of the demons that haunt them.

The novel opens with a scene showing the interactions between Emma and her husband, Paul, as she finds herself shaken after reading a report about a baby found on a building site.

Readers get a sense of what her problems are in how she relates to those around her, although it is only chapters later that they get a hint of why this is the case: Her mother chased her out of their home when she was a troubled teenager.

But Barton does not leave it as that, switching to the mother Jude's perspective from time to time, adding layers of complexity to Emma's experiences and softening the depiction of the older woman's role. It is through such familial ties that Barton introduces other underlying themes, such as trauma and assault, peppered across the various personalities and adding depth to the story.

The protagonists are also not the only ones whose backstories were well thought out, making the novel a down-to-earth adventure.

The wife of the pub's landlord is one such personality. First introduced as a person who might have known old occupants of the area where the baby's skeleton was found, her vibrant character ends up playing a role in the mystery's eventual reveal.

If you like this book, read: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown (Spiegel & Grau, 2017, $34.24, Books Kinokuniya), about a mother with an enviable life who vanishes on a solo hike, while her husband and daughter struggle with the question of whether she is truly gone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline 'Well-drawn characters, multiple perspectives and plot twists'. Print Edition | Subscribe