Much as an outraged public in south England reacts to the murder of a young girl by a twelve-year-old boy, Lelic invokes an equal uncomfortable response to the solicitor’s priorities from this reader. The attorney chosen to represent Daniel Blake is a mediocre advocate yet to prove himself by the time of his father’s death, harboring a corrosive need to rise above his obvious limitations. Leo Curtice is a temporizer, an accommodator given an unexpected opportunity to be in the public eye, even if not in a particularly positive light. Leo’s defense of Blake puts him at odds with society and—more importantly—his wife and daughter, Megan and Eleanor. Given the brutality of the boy’s crime and the irate reaction of the public, Megan is immediately fearful of the effect the case will have on their family, a concern Leo studiously ignores to grave consequence.
While Blake and the crime inhabit much of the landscape of the novel, Leo’s emotional legerdemain while on the case and his insensitivity to the victim and his own family undermine any sympathy for either killer or attorney. Increasingly obsessed with the boy’s defense, Curtice willfully closes his heart to his wife’s requests to consider his family’s welfare, even after fifteen-year-old Ellie is attacked at school and made to suffer for her father’s decision to represent Blake. Leo continues to ignore the obvious, hiding behind his paperwork, rationalizing signs of impending danger, hiding threatening notes instead of taking the appropriate action: “What kind of man lets something happen he knows could hurt his wife?”
One cannot imagine it is Lelic’s aim to engage the reader in helpless outrage, to mimic the public’s reaction to a heinous crime, or to blatantly engage emotions rather than logic. If so, his technique is successful. Megan describes Leo as “a small man in a small town of even smaller minded people.” Coupled with the low level skills of his solicitor (“But Leo didn’t have the heart to…”), the boy is being defended by a flawed character in a rendition of bureaucratic ineptitude that fails to meet even the minimum needs of society, a chilling fact more often true than not. Mediocrity determines Blake’s fate in the criminal justice system and puts an innocent family in harm’s way. The fumbler behind it all, Curtice, is shattered by the effects of his choices, his prickly hubris captured in Megan’s observation: “One minute you’re chasing the press away and the next you’re preening for the cameras.”
So yes, Lelic does evoke a strong reaction in The Child Who, though not the one I anticipated when choosing this title. When the family of an attorney becomes collateral damage in an outrageous murder case, there is something deeply wrong in a society so inured to violence that retribution against those with whom we disagree seems appropriate. Yet Lelic proves his point, my disgust for Leo Curtice giving birth to a withering judgment. I get what I want—satisfaction—sans self-respect, in a provocative novel that offers much food for thought, albeit mostly indigestible.