The Source, by Sarah Sultoon – book review

I wrote on Friday that The Source works well alongside Someone who isn’t meboth are big, explosive titles that look at imbalances of power. Someone is local and individual whereas The Source concerns what happens when men of the world make decisions which (they argue) are in the greater good. (They aren’t, of course.) Both show the day-to-day helplessness at least part of which is caused by the neglect of those in power.

Cover of The Source by Sarah Sultoon

The plot of The Source includes trafficking and abuse. We don’t see it – that’s important – but what’s really clear is the desperation and powerlessness of the girls involved. Thirteen year-old Carly is carer to a mother defeated by deceit and addiction, and to her baby sister. The army offers a lifeline. There are strings attached. You can guess.

The army can do what it wants because it cloaks itself in the flag and hides behind a general get-out card of the needs of intelligence. As Sultoon’s narrator states, ‘humankind can plumb the depths of inhumanity in the name of intelligence’.

The army have the State on their side. There’s a scene set in the depths of Whitehall. There are spy-like appointments in St James’s Park with guns and passwords and secret identities. Against them: a bunch of journalists, some with an agenda. A few insiders, perhaps. Some people at the Met. Maybe a victim or two. Sultoon is good at reminding us that there are a number of people who have been caught up in it all. Perhaps they felt that it was all in the greater good. Perhaps they felt that there was a bit of personal back-scratching to be had. But even within that group there are people with agency and people without. Carly, Ma, Kayleigh, even and controversially Jason: almost no one has ever looked out for them or seen them as anything other than material for exploitation. Does Rach? Does Nurse Govern? Sultoon lets us make our own minds up.

There is no room in the novel for the political process to provide scrutiny. So – the bunch of journalists: TV news reporters. Sultoon draws heavily on her long experience with CNN and shows us the decision-making processes and personal competition that the newsroom is built on. To get on screen, stories have got to be powerful and well told. Calling people to account depends on ratings, and Sultoon describes the symbiotic relationship between the newsroom and the institutions on which it reports.

It’s good and it’s detailed and it’s exciting and there’s a car chase and a stakeout in a Travelodge in the opening pages and an ever-so-slightly confusing adventure on the Great Eastern Main Line into Essex. The use of split narrators allows some experimentation with language (including a jawdrop-causing metaphor right on page 1). The characters are well-developed and three-dimensional. But what makes the book stand above other newsroom thrillers comes from elsewhere: as an exploration of brokenness, what it takes to survive against the casual violence of the entitlement of the powerful, what it might take to heal. Marie concludes that becoming a journalist, and reporting on the worst stories, might help her own mental health. ‘This is how I make them evaporate. With worse stories than mine. I know they’re out there. I’ve just never thought to go looking for them.’ In the days following 9/11 she lands up on a local paper with an idealistic editor. And, at the end, there is a kind of redemption. It would be too bleak if there were not. Marie will get to be in control of her own life. There is some rather lovely mirroring of some of the language from the beginning of the book. Tentatively, delicately, survival is mentioned. The reader is asked to put some faith back in the system which has carelessly trashed so many lives. The strength of the characters that Sultoon has given us means that if they ask us to, we will do it. Deep down, though, we know that’s not enough. Perhaps we’ll look slightly more closely in future when the powerful want us to turn the other way. Perhaps we’ll be less judgemental about those powerless among us.

At times we are uncomfortable, at times we are disgusted, but this unmissable dark debut shows both the depths of inhumanity and what our better natures call us towards.

You can pre-order the paperback of The Source (it ships on 15 April) from the Cafethinking shop.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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