There are two types of crime novelist: one sets out to produce a puzzle and test the reader’s deductive powers; the other uses a set of pre-ordained ingredients but mixes them in a way that makes a wider commentary on the world. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Beck police procedurals, which provided social commentary on 1960s Sweden are a well-known example of the latter, and it’s in this camp that debut novelist Sarah Ward has pitched her tent.
In 1978, the story goes, two schoolgirls go missing. One returns. The fate of the other is unknown for thirty years. This is the tale of one of the children, the woman she became, and the generation that failed to protect her and her friend: a generation that was divided about to whom to do its duty.
The UK has in recent years started to come to terms with its historic failings in terms of child protection. As someone who was a child in 1978, I found myself drawn particularly to the way in which the 1970s are seen through a child’s eyes and only really subjected to an adult’s scrutiny in the present day. That’s rather a clever use of perspective, because Ward explores how family culture has changed in the UK in the last seventy years. What is important and what is seen as important? The writer is clear that our present ways are preferable to those of the past but is also very fair: almost everyone in the book – including someone involved with the kidnapping – thinks they were doing the right thing according to their own idea of morality. And Ward is quite scrupulous in allowing the characters to speak for themselves. I continued to think about the themes in the book for several days having reached the end.
This is certainly an ambitious debut. It includes a short prologue – set in 1978 – which uses a denser prose style (I will be honest: when I read it the first time I thought it was elegant but too rich for the genre; reading it again it’s perfectly pitched) to contrast sharply with the style of the novel as a whole. It’s a nice literary move in a novel that wears its intelligence lightly.
In Bitter Chill is, in turns and at once, menacing and bright, scary and hopeful. Sarah Ward’s second novel is in the works and is one to look out for; the bar is set high.