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Sweet William Hardcover – October 19, 2017
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About the Author
Iain Maitland is the author of Dear Michael, Love Dad (Hodder, 2016), a moving book of letters written to his son, who suffered from depression and anorexia. Iain is an ambassador for Stem4, the teenage mental health charity, and regularly gives talks about mental health issues in the workplace. A writer since 1987, he is a journalist and has written more than 50 books, mainly on business, which have been published around the world.
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And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we're stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he's not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn't even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I've bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it's a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I've read in a long time – think Mr Heming (A Pleasure and a Calling) or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar (You). Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner!
I don't want to say too much about the plot since it's always best to know as little as possible in advance when reading thrillers, but I will mention that little William, who's only three, goes through a lot, so if you really struggle with bad things happening to fictional children this may not be for you. There is no sexual abuse however.
The book is written in two voices. One is a third-person, past tense narrator who tells us the events of this forty-eight hours as they happen to William's new family, who adopted him after his mum died and his father was put in the hospital. Although we do learn the names of these characters, for the most part the narrator refers to them as 'the young woman', 'the old man', etc. This is a fantastic device for keeping us distanced from them – in fact, they're not even particularly likeable in the beginning – so that somehow we're not sucked in to being 100% on their side – not for a while, anyway.
Orrey however tells us his own story in the present tense, talking directly to us (or maybe talking to another voice inside his head, but the effect is the same). He doesn't have much of a plan and has to react to each event as it happens. Frequently, a chapter will end with him summing up what he thinks his options are and then asking what would you do? Now, it's perfectly possible I'm a very sick person because I found myself being forced to agree that sometimes the most extreme option was really the only possible one. When I discovered that at one point I was agreeing that he really had to do something that no normal person would ever dream of doing, I laughed at how brilliantly the author had pushed me so far inside Orrey's insane world view that he'd made it seem almost logical.
Despite the darkness of the story, Maitland keeps the graphic stuff firmly off the page for the most part, though that doesn't stop it from seeping into the reader's imagination. But it does make it a bearable – dare I say, even an entertaining – read, which wouldn't have been the case for me had every event been described in glorious technicolor. The oblique references to what has happened during the gaps in Orrey's narration actually frequently made me laugh in a guilty kind of way – there's a thin vein of coal black humour buried very insidiously in there, I think, in the early parts, at least. Although the stuff relating to William is difficult to read, if Orrey has a redeeming feature it's that he truly does love his son, which somehow made it possible for me to remain in his company if not on his side.
However, as the book goes on, the darkness becomes ever deeper and Maitland changes the focus with a great deal of subtlety and skill so that gradually our sympathies become fixed where they should have been all along – with William and his adopted parents. But we are left inside Orrey's unreliable mind right up to the end, so that the book might end but our stress levels take a good deal longer to get back to normal. I finished it four days ago, and I'm still waiting...
I believe this is Maitland's fictional début – well, I'm kinda speechless at that. While the subject matter might make this a tough read for some, for me the quality of the writing, the way the author nudges and pushes the reader to go exactly where he wants, and the utterly believable and unique voice of Orrey, all make this a stunning achievement. Set aside a few hours to read it in a block though – you'll either stop for good very quickly or you won't want to stop at all...
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.
Raymond Orrey tells his part of the story in the first person and as a reader, this is chilling, when he asks a question I was never quite sure if he was talking to me, or to an alternative personality that was vying for his attention. It was a chilling insight into the mind of a psychopath; in fact it was more than an insight, I was forced to crawl right inside the head of this man and hear his voice and watch his acts and unable to stop him; never gratuitously violent but was left with no doubt that Raymond Orrey was a very violent and unpredictable man. He tries hard to convince us that he is a good man, a good daddy but the chilling narrative makes it clear that he’s not
As a reader, I felt as though I had become the unwitting observer to his spiral further into madness, once I started reading, I had engaged with him and there was no escape.We don’t really get to know the other characters and it is hard to engage with them because of this. However I don’t think the author intended for us to engage with them, they are on the periphery and our focus is on Orrey and William. My heart was in my mouth the whole way through; tears and frustration, sadness and anger were emotions swirling about as I read. This book will crawl under your skin and wrap it’s insidious tendrils around you never letting go, once you open this book, there is no going back!
The eponymous William may well be sweet, but this story certainly isn’t – it’s at times quite nasty. This book has been described as a dark thriller and it is, without doubt, a page turner – you want to keep reading in the increasingly vain hope that all will turn out well in the end. And dark it certainly is – but without any light to offset the gloom. There are no characters to really identify with, nothing to lift the mood of despair. Most thrillers work because the reader identifies with the potential victim and hopes desperately that they will escape the horror pursuing them. Here, the story is narrated by Orrey as he flees with the small child from the police and it is extremely difficult to find anything in Orrey to empathise with. Only at the beginning when Orrey was describing his fantastical plans to form a daddy-child bond with William by taking him to the south of France, did I feel the slightest twinge of feeling for the character but that was all too soon obliterated by his repeated aggressive commands direct to the reader. All the other characters with whom you might possibly identify are too one dimensional to be effective. Even the plot doesn’t offer much in the way of the exciting twists usual in thrillers, as Orrey just seems to blunder interminably around the back streets of Aldeburgh with his obviously very ill child.
Iain Maitland clearly knows Aldeburgh well and the beach, the seafront and the narrow streets that lead down to the seafront are clearly described. The reader sees these places through Orrey’s jaundiced eyes. Maitland describes Orrey as an unreliable narrator and it is clear, from the onset, that Orrey’s view of the world is certainly pretty different from anyone else’s. As I reached the end of the book (and an unsatisfying ending to my mind) all I could feel was a sense of relief. It just wasn’t a book for me.