Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Son-in-Law - Charity Norman

This is the second novel I have read by Charity Norman; I was very impressed by After the Fall, and though that remains my favourite of the two, there is much to admire in this, her latest offering, The Son-in-Law (You can read my thoughts on After the Fall here. Freeing Grace is on my to be read asap pile).

The Son-in-Law opens with an explosive short section – one of the exhibits in a criminal case at Leeds Crown Court - the transcript of a telephone call made to the emergency services by a ten-year-old girl named Scarlett, recounting what has just happened to her mother Zoe; Scarlett’s father Joseph hit her. 

Then the main narrative begins, we move forward a few years, and we discover the aftermath of what happened, and we learn what the present and future might hold for all those affected by Zoe’s death. (Her death is no secret; it is revealed in the synopsis to the novel that she was killed.)

Three voices tell us the tale: we hear about the lives of Scarlett and of Hannah, Zoe’s mother, in their own intimate first-person accounts, and then Joseph Scott, Zoe’s husband and Scarlett’s father, whose side is told at a slight distance through a third-person narrator. 

Hannah's holds her son-in-law Joseph fully responsible for Zoe's death. Hannah is riddled with grief, bereft that her only child is gone from the world. Together with her husband, she has cared for the three children left behind when Zoe passed away and Joseph went to prison. Scarlett is Zoe's daughter and her eldest child; there are two brothers as well. Scarlett is now in her teenage years. Joseph is emerging from prison in Leeds having served his sentence. He has lost his wife, his career as a teacher, and his three children. He feels that Hannah never liked him and that he wasn't good enough for Zoe. Now he wants his children back, something Hannah can't even contemplate.

The family is so torn, filled with pain and hurt, wanting to do the right thing for the children. The anguish and loss is strongly felt by the reader; it’s an emotional read, and one that makes you think, it causes the reader to debate internally and consider the outcomes and where the children might be best suited, who they ought to be with, and it’s certainly a tricky one, despite what your gut reaction might be. I had to think twice about what I thought the best outcome was.

The novel deals with another difficult subject, that of mental health. I didn't realise this when I started reading, and I found it a bit upsetting when I discovered this. I felt strongly that Zoe ought to have had more help and support and I would have liked this area to have been explored in a bit more detail; this was the main weakness of the story for me. 

I do enjoy this author's writing style very much. She writes convincingly in different voices, from that of a girl to a grandmother, building rounded characters, and revealing character cleverly. The interactions between the characters feel believable, with credible dialogue used very effectively. The touching relationship between Hannah and her ageing, wonderful husband Frederick, whose health starts to fail, is tenderly portrayed. We are drawn into this family's life, and there is light and shade in these characters, as with real life, no one is perfect, they have redeeming features and they have weaknesses, and there is no easy answer to what they face; far from it. 

I also enjoyed the Yorkshire setting, the mentions of the city of York, and the use of authentic expressions. (Between this and After the Fall, Charity Norman has used two of my favourite places in the world, Yorkshire and New Zealand, as her settings, which I've really enjoyed.) The author's background as a barrister added authenticity to the sections dealing with legal procedure, and the dealings with the family court advisor Lester Hardy felt plausible; I liked how his character was brought into the tale, someone who looked at both sides and offered an unbiased interpretation of the situation. 

This is a painful, emotionally raw story that examines the deep wounds left behind after the tragic death of a beloved daughter, mother and wife. It was heartbreaking and at times upsetting, and Charity Norman doesn't avoid the sad realities of this difficult situation for all concerned, but the story also offers hope and looks at people's ability to forgive and build bridges even when it feels impossible. This author isn't afraid of tacking life-changing themes, and she is a must-read for me now.

Published by Allen and Unwin

Thanks to the publisher for kindly sending me a copy of this novel to read and give an honest review.

You can find the author on twitter @CharityNorman1 


  1. Oh dear, this sounds as if it needs to be read with a tissue box at hand. the kind of book that I'd have to be in the right frame of mind to read but definitely one I'll make a note of.

    1. Thanks for commenting Tracy. It's definitely worth reading, but certainly is emotional too.

  2. This sounds really good, great review Lyns


    1. Cheers Lainy, thanks for commenting.

  3. I really enjoyed this novel, I thought it tackled a really difficult subject where there are no clear lines. Good sense of place, at time I felt I was really in York and in Yorkshire. Thanks for the great review!


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