Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on The Child.
Although I never figured out the “gotcha” plot twist, I had to keep reading Barton’s rather disappointing follow-up to The Widow. Featuring the character of Kate Waters, Barton explores an unholy trinity of secrets and suffering. Three women, all with dysfunctional psychological profiles, are brought together after an infant’s skeleton is discovered on a building site in Woolwich, not ten miles from Kate’s East London home. Kate, still working as a reporter for the Daily Post, loves “a needle in a haystack job,” the glint of something dark, as well as “something to get her out of the office.” Although the story is light on details, Kate wonders about the origin of the baby, which in turn leads her to worry about her own children, Jake and Freddie.
Precisely because there is so little evidence available, Kate is in a sprint to collect the facts. Her first call is to the Scotland Yard Press office. Apparently, a workman was clearing a demolition site and had moved an old urn. Underneath was this tiny skeleton, “new born they say.” There are no leads on identification, although the area was once a warren of rented flats and bedsits, heavily populated by the transient artistic set during the 1970s and early 1980s. According DI Bob Sparkes (also from The Widow), the baby was not a recent burial and was probably newborn. With the forensic tests well underway, Kate traces down the original detective on the case who thinks it was probably a desperate single mother back in the dim and distant past when “illegitimacy mattered.” Kate unexpectedly finds herself working backwards to prove this theory of a historic connection. Never mind finding the mother, which at this point looks like an impossible undertaking.
The other major voices narrating the novel are Emma and Angela. Emma’s shocked to read about the baby. The terror of being “discovered” coils around her while her husband, Paul, hovers over her, intent to protect her from harm. Over the years, Jude, Emma’s narcissistic mother, has only increased Emma’s tenuous hold on reality. Emma’s life seems to be creaking along the fault lines, her ability to keep her secret proving too fragile and too exhausting to hold together. The problem is that the secret has taken on a life of its own. It sits in the middle of a growing tangle of lies and fabrications, “like a fat fly trapped in a spider’s web.”
Angela also seems to have a fortuitous connection to the baby. She’s celebrating the fortieth birthday of Alice, her daughter who vanished over forty years ago. Angela cannot bear to see the flash of panic in Nick’s eyes when he’s forced to revisit that day. She still gets flashbacks to “the bone-chilling silence.” She’s tried to train herself to put the memories away, but Kate plunges into her life, dredging up memories from Angela’s past and torturing her with the events that had unfolded at 63 Howard Street.
Considering the delicacy of the case, DI Sparkes worries about the implications of going public, begging Kate to say nothing. More complications arrive with the results of a DNA test. Angela is convinced the infant is Alice. Emma, meanwhile, spends her days in fear, trying not to think about the ghosts of Howard Street or recollections of Will Burnside, Jude’s old boyfriend, and Al Soames, Howard Street’s lascivious landlord. Burnside constantly “materializes and fills Emma’s brain.” He first appeared in their lives in the mid-80s, “storming our castle and sweeping Jude off her feet.” As Emma’s anxiety increases, she contacts Kate, endeavoring to paint a very different picture of her mother. Perhaps the most complex character, Jude is a product of what she thinks society expects of her: mother, wife, and self-absorbed, glamorous girlfriend. Part of Jude’s conflict is that she bends to each of these personas without really understanding why none truly satisfy her.
Although The Child lacks the cohesiveness of The Widow, the questions behind the novel are significant: whether the crimes of the distant past can justifiably be pursued, and whether the sins of youth should be punished when the adult is effectively a different person. Is it right to inflict punishment on them? Is there even any point to it? Barton captures both Emma and Angela’s sense of shame and guilt. connecting Kate’s intimacy with Angela. She becomes privy to Angela’s deepest feelings and thoughts, even as she finds herself balancing the chance to finally solve the 40-year-old mystery with her boss’s pressure to publish even more details of the Building Site Baby.
Though the story’s rather trite conclusion doesn’t exactly deliver, I’m hesitant to label the book a disappointment. Obviously, the present-day links between Emma, Angela, Kate, and Jude are well-constructed, as is Angela’s courage in refusing to give up on Alice. The story is more effective in the historical passages, particularly in the back story of Emma’s teenage years with its hints of misogyny and sexual abuse. Barton tells us that crime is rarely as straightforward as it seems and often banal, regularly hidden from plain sight, sometimes even for years.