The Child by Fiona Barton
When a paragraph in an evening newspaper reveals a decades-old tragedy, most readers barely give it a glance. But for three strangers it’s impossible to ignore. For one woman, it’s a reminder of the worst thing that ever happened to her. For another, it reveals the dangerous possibility that her darkest secret is about to be discovered. And for the third, a journalist, it’s the first clue in a hunt to uncover the truth. The Child’s story will be told.
Barton writes convincingly about the new technology that’s swallowed up traditional newsrooms – not surprising as she herself was a long-time reporter on the Daily Mail. Her protagonist, Kate, is weary of the young, eager ‘online slaves, straight out of sixth form’ who are now doing her job at a fraction of her pay.
She realized how bitter – and old – she must sound . . . The tsunami of online news had washed her and those like her to a distant shore. The reporters who once sat on the top table – the newspaper equivalent of the winner’s podium – now perched at the edge of the newsroom, pushed further and further towards the exit by the growing ranks of online operatives who wrote 24/7 to fill the hungry maw of rolling news.
Like many of the remaining old-school journos, Kate fears for her job. So she follows the lead about the baby’s skeleton avidly, certain there’s a big story behind it. And there is – one involving two women: Angela and Emma.
Angela’s newborn baby daughter was stolen from her hospital bedside decades earlier. Though she has two more children, she cannot forget her kidnapped baby, who was never found. She is wrapped in sadness and irrational guilt. Is this newly discovered dead newborn her stolen child? Emma, much younger, suffers from crippling anxiety and frequent bouts of depression, for which she needs medication. She won’t tell anyone, even her loving husband, the dark secret which has so damaged her mental health. Our intrepid reporter, rediscovering her journalistic nose for a story, ferrets it all out.
The Child is both an engrossing thriller and a convincing portrait of the strength of the mother/child bond. We really enjoyed it.
This tense and exciting thriller is set in 2012, but takes us back to the London of the seventies and eighties: grotty, decrepit housing estates and single mums who struggle to get by.
Flash forward again to 2012 and greedy property developers are leaning on older residents to leave their scruffy crumbling homes to make way for ‘gentrification’ – i.e. new and flashy housing developments aimed at the well-heeled willing to pay excessive prices for a foothold in increasingly unaffordable London.
Barton’s heroine is once again Kate Waters, the disillusioned journalist who appeared in Barton’s hit debut novel, The Widow, a bestseller. Waters, bored to death by her job, is a reporter desperately in search of a scoop, a meaty one with lots of human interest, to impress her jaded editor.
She finds it in a local rag; just a few lines, but Kate’s instincts tell her this could be big. The tiny skeleton of a newborn baby is found hidden under the debris at a building site where construction workers are demolishing a scruffy square. ‘Women’s stuff,’ says her editor dismissively. But Kate persists. Who was the baby? How did it die? And most important of all – where is the mother?
Read an Extract of The Child by Fiona Barton
Tuesday, 20 March 2012
KATE WATERS WAS BORED. It wasn’t a word she normally associated with her job, but today she was stuck in the office under the nose of her boss with nothing to do but re- writes.
She realized how bitter – and old – she must sound and stopped herself
‘Put it through your golden typewriter,’ Terry, the news editor, had shouted across, waving someone else’s badly written story at her. ‘Sprinkle a bit of fairy dust on it.’
And so she did.
‘It’s like Mike Baldwin’s knicker factory in here,’ she complained to the Crime man, sitting opposite. ‘Churning out the same old rubbish with a few frills. What are you working on?’
Gordon Willis, always referred to by the editor by his job title – as in ‘Get the Crime man on this story . . .’ – lifted his head from a newspaper and shrugged. ‘Going down to the Old Bailey this afternoon – want to have a chat with the DCI in the crossbow murder. Nothing doing yet, but hoping I might get a talk with the victim’s sister when it finishes. Looks like she was sleeping with the killer. It’ll be a great multi- deck headline: THE WIFE, THE SISTER AND THE KILLER THEY BOTH LOVED.’ He grinned at the thought. ‘Why? What have you got on?’
‘Nothing. Unpicking a story one of the online slaves has done.’ Kate indicated a pubescent nymph typing furiously at a desk across the room. ‘Straight out of sixth form.’
She realized how bitter – and old – she must sound and stopped herself. The tsunami of online news had washed her and those like her to a distant shore. The reporters who once sat on the top table – the newspaper equivalent of the winner’s podium – now perched at the edge of the newsroom, pushed further and further towards the exit by the growing ranks of online operatives who wrote 24/7 to fill the hungry maw of rolling news.
New media stopped being new a long time ago, the editor had lectured his staff at the Christmas party. It was the norm. It was the future. And Kate knew she had to stop bitching about it.
Coffee was the new addiction of choice.
Hard, she told herself, when the most viewed stories on the paper’s slick website were about Madonna’s hands being veiny or an EastEnders star putting on weight. ‘Hate a Celebrity’ dressed as news. Horror.
‘Anyway,’ she said out loud, ‘it can wait. I’ll go and get us a coffee.’
Also gone were the days of the CQ – the Conference Quickie – once enjoyed by Fleet Street’s finest in the nearest pubs while the executives were in the editor’s morning meeting. The CQ was traditionally followed by red- faced, drunken rows with the news editor – one of which, legend had it, ended with a reporter, too drunk to stand, biting his boss’s ankle and another reporter throwing a typewriter through a window into the street below. These days the newsroom, now in offices above a shopping mall, had windows hermetically sealed by double- glazing and alcohol was banned. Coffee was the new addiction of choice.
‘What do you want?’ Kate asked.
‘Double macchiato with hazelnut syrup, please,’ Gordon said. ‘Or some brown liquid. Whichever comes first.’ Kate took the lift down, pinching a first edition of the Evening Standard from the security desk in the marble lobby. As she waited for the barista to work his magic with the steamer, she flicked idly through the pages, checking for the by- lines of friends.
The paper was wall- to- wall with preparations for the London Olympics and she almost missed the paragraph at the bottom of the News in Brief column.
How could anyone kill a baby?
Headlined BABY’S BODY FOUND, two sentences told how an infant’s skeleton had been unearthed on a building site in Woolwich, not a million miles from Kate’s east London home. Police were investigating. No other details. She tore it out for later. The bottom of her bag was lined with crumpled scraps of newspaper – ‘It’s like a budgie cage,’ her eldest son, Jake, teased her about the shreds of paper waiting for life to be breathed into them. Sometimes whole stories to be followed up or, more often, just a line or a quote that made her ask, ‘What’s the story?’
Kate re- read the thirty words and wondered about the person missing from the story. The mother. As she walked back with the coffee cups, she ticked off her questions: Who is the baby? How did it die? Who would bury a baby?
‘Poor little thing,’ she said out loud. Her head was suddenly full of her own babies – Jake and Freddie, born two years apart but known as ‘the boys’ in family shorthand – as sturdy toddlers, schoolboys in football kit, surly teenagers and now adults. Well, almost. She smiled to herself. Kate could remember the moment she saw each of them for the first time: red, slippery bodies; crumpled, too- big skin; blinking eyes staring up from her chest, and her feeling that she had known their faces for ever. How could anyone kill a baby?
When she got back to the newsroom, she put the cups down and walked over to the news desk.
‘Do you mind if I have a look at this?’ she asked Terry, waving the tiny cutting in front of him as he tried to make sense of a feature on foreign royals. He didn’t look up, so she assumed he didn’t.
Book Club Questions for The Child
1. How does Fiona Barton present mothers and motherhood in The Child? How does each character’s experience of motherhood change them?
2. Emma says, ‘People say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… But it doesn’t. It breaks your bones, leaving everything splintered and held together with grubby bandages and yellowing sticky tape… Sometimes you wish it had killed you.’ Do you agree with this? How does this relate to Emma?
3. In The Child, Harry comments: ‘What gives them the right to meddle in people’s lives like this? How is this news? This is a personal tragedy, not some story for everyone to gawp at.’ What do you think makes a story newsworthy? Are reporters like Kate right to investigate these kinds of ‘human interest’ stories?
4. The epigraph states: ‘When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.’ How do you interpret this in relation to what happens in The Child?