A Song of Isolation by Michael Malone shares many characteristics with his previous novel A Suitable Lie. Both take different perspectives on harrowing subjects, both are incredibly sad and in both cases Malone stops at nothing to turn the reader inside out. This time, the subject is child abuse and tells the story of the accused, his girlfriend and the young accuser. It’s a difficult book and it’s worth your time.
It’s important to stress that we are spared any detail of the alleged offence, though there is some violence for example in prison. Indeed, although the fact of the allegation is a central part of the novel, the novel is about other things entirely. It is about us, who shake our heads and tut when fed gossip, and a culture that laps up celebrity culture and the Daily Mail sidebar of shame. It just so happens that Dave – the accused – has a former film star girlfriend, Amelie, and the paparazzi and celebrity-focused media can’t feed the story enough. Celebrity culture relies on us all knowing that the glitter is false and the glamour is based on deceit. Tabloid gossip was the original fake news, and we all knew it and went along with it for the ride.
Malone points out that we are all complicit. We recognise ourselves in some of the language used by Dave’s family and his neighbours. We understand when Amelie uses the tricks of the trade to influence star-struck police personnel. Celebrity media is described in detail, in an attempt to anger us: that anger is meant to give us enough energy to get through other scenes which are intensely sad. We know what Malone is doing, but the novel never steps into sensationalism.
The novel wouldn’t work if we didn’t have some sympathy with Dave, Amelie and the young girl, Damaris. (You are not meant to read any spoilers into the last sentence. This being a thriller, we don’t know where the twist will come, so we reserve the right to withdraw that support.) But I think that the strongest and most innovative part of the novel is the creation of a number of characters whom our initial reaction is to dislike. We don’t get their side of the story. We don’t want their side of the story. Malone makes us realise that we are as likely to be instruments of injustice as the characters who gleefully whisper tittle-tattle and pass judgement on other people they don’t know. When Damaris thinks of gossip as ‘normal life’ we know what she means.
There’s no getting away from it. In the making of this novel lives albeit fictional ones are cut short or irrevocably stunted. But among scenes of indifference to suffering (one of the characters tosses aside an ‘och’ which is shockingly casual in its cruelty) there are also occasions of real warmth. It’s frightening and sad and a little bit hopeful at the same time.
Once more Malone has written us something which makes us think about something we don’t want to think about and from an angle that we usually forget. This is writing that will stay with you long after the final page.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.