The Home, by Sarah Stovell – book review

I was supposed to write about this last Thursday, but I wasn’t able to. I feared I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But it turns out that justice, like truth, is a moveable feast. In the penultimate scene of The Home, 

Justice meant not lying, but just keeping calmly and steadily silent.

Three characters stand alongside each other,

The three of them, each knowing the truth, and all of them bound never to say a word

In the final chapter, we realise that at least one of the characters has got it quite badly wrong.

Cover of The Home by Sarah StovellThe Home is shocking, dark and difficult. It is about the most challenging of subjects: the abuse of children and the failure of adults – parents, carers, social workers, police – to put it right. It’s billed as a psychological thriller, but that implies entertainment and (given the subject matter) exploitation and it is not that. These characters are created to give voice to thousands of children who are unseen by most of society. Stovell’s fury at these children’s plight seeps from every page.

There are times when the subject matter has the reader unsure whether to continue, but the constant shift of narrator sets us at a slight distance which is part of the way in which we experience this book: we, like the adult characters, aren’t able to get too close, and in a way that makes the narrative more bearable. There’s ambiguity everywhere. It’s obvious from the front cover, which talks of The Home, when each of the girls wanted only their own home. There’s confusion about who exactly has died, and each of the Home’s inhabitants is an unreliable narrator. They are a mix of streetwise beyond their years and ludicrously ill-informed, copying behaviour they’ve seen on TV. And, as their tales are told, we learn exactly how they have ended up here.

Annie is 15. Hope is 15. Lara is 12. The Home is their residence for now, one of a string of placements and units, staffed by good-intentioned professionals doing professional things and trying their best as they battle with budgets and inspections and protocol and the knowledge that what these children have seen cannot be unseen. The children are aware of much of this: they are unwilling consumers of a process that is meant to protect them and which, even as the threads of the welfare state are casually unpicked, cannot. For the abuse of at least two of these children began at birth, when they were neglected by their mothers who were themselves abandoned by their partners. And now their greatest wish is to receive what they might imagine is a normal motherhood.

None of this is as it should be, and Stovell goes out of her way not to give us any answers. The resolution on the final page isn’t, really. There’s some retribution against one of the main abusers, but the girls will have to go on, to the next stage in their neglected lives. I’m torn between wanting solutions and knowing that the whole point of the book is that there aren’t any, because they’d have been found by now. The challenge to us readers is to make sure that we think always of the powerless and not always of the confident.

My need for answers was at time a barrier against engaging with the novel. For example, it feels glib in the circumstances to draw on the almost complete absence of any serious or sympathetic male character (and even Ace, the abuser, is described eventually as being a vehicle through whom Hope could understand her mother).

Reading the above, I fear that I have still not yet been just towards this novel. I haven’t spoken of the language used by Hope and Annie in particular, the use of metaphor, or creative narrative formats such as Annie’s description of her previous home life. But I think though all of that is there, it’s missing the point. The Home should hit you in your gut. And it does. Very little else matters.

You can buy The Home here (affiliate link).

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

As mentioned, I should have posted this on Thursday as part of the blog tour for The Home. Check out the other stops on the tour.

The Home blog tour poster

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