When London solicitor Daniel Hunter accepts the case of 11-year-old Sebastian Croll, who stands accused of the murder of eight-year-old Ben Stokes, he anticipates the sensationalism that attends the murder and subsequent trial, but not that Sebastian will provoke unsettling insights into his own past. Interviewing the boy has its own set of problems; Sebastian's demeanor is almost preternaturally composed. He appears intelligent and curious, even mature beyond his years but for the screaming tantrums he throws when he cannot have his way.
As Sebastian's brittle mother hovers nearby, the boy denies any guilt, relating his memory of events that afternoon with an eerie calmness, a detachment that the detectives find particularly unsettling. Daniel observes his young client carefully, concerned with the immediate future—from incarceration through trial, what spending time in juvenile detention might do to such an unformed life, regardless whether guilty or innocent. Unexpectedly, Daniel finds himself recalling the details of his own troubled past, the direction his life might have taken if the rage and rebellion he experienced continued unabated:
"He remembered how desperate he had felt as a child...It had driven him to terrible things." He would never be here, interviewing a boy accused of a terrible crime, might have been such a boy himself, facing imprisonment.
Son of an addict and a father he's never known, Daniel was separated from his mother and placed in foster care at Sebastian's age. He develops a pattern of rebellious behavior, running away from any new environment to find his mother, whose drug use escalates over time. A posting in a rural village with foster mother Minnie Flynn is a challenge for Daniel at this critical time. The large, brusque woman carries a burden of quiet grief that her sulky new charge never really understands. But for Minnie's intervention, Daniel might have spent the remainder of his time housed with other incorrigible boys.
Minnie patiently woos Daniel to the quiet and ordered (albeit messy) existence on her small lot, with her coop of chickens and stall in an outdoor market. As he rebels, destroys, escapes and battles the demons of dispossessed adolescence, Minnie remains consistent, gradually seducing a lonely boy to a world without chaos where a real future is possible. The counterbalance to the chaos of his young existence, Minnie patiently works with the troubled boy, offering blunt solace—often inept, but always well-meaning. When Minnie does the unthinkable, making a decision that Daniel considers an unforgivable betrayal, a permanent rift is created, severing all ties between them as the years pass without communication.
Ballantyne explores the criminal justice system through both Daniel's perspective and that of defense attorney Irene Clarke of the Queen's Court. Daniel and Irene have a history together: the loss of a case last year when another juvenile entered the system, a defeat that left them both feeling helpless. Now, facing a prosecutor avid to prove Sebastian a liar and a killer, Irene is up to the challenge, she and Daniel cooperating in the preparation of Sebastian's defense. For all that Sebastian may, in fact, be a killer and a sociopath, past experience might indicate a young Daniel more directly in line for a life behind bars at that age than the entitled child of influential parents. Only Minnie's intervention, even while bearing unimaginable grief that she assuages with gin at the most difficult times, is instrumental in curbing the boy's impulses, offering a new direction. (The evolution of that relationship is extraordinary, beautifully rendered by Ballantyne, though lost by Minnie's error in judgment.)
Ballantyne's juxtaposition of both events—the trial of an essentially unlikable child and a solicitor's recurring memories of his years with a beloved foster mother—create a memorable novel, Daniel's emotional journey back to the woman he loves versus the guilt or innocence of a boy who may have murdered his playmate in cold blood. Daniel's belated awakening may change his prospects for happiness, while Sebastian's future remains an enigma, a pampered, brilliant boy who walks through the world feigning an innocence that may hide the heart of a killer.