The Guilty OneThe Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All summer, I’ve been longing for a book that would draw me in completely and make me ignore my responsibilities to keep reading. Finally, I found it in THE GUILTY ONE. Let’s get one thing straight: this is not a mystery/thriller even though it is being marketed as one. It’s a well-written novel that happens to have a crime in it. Many of the negative reviews here focus on the fact that the resolution of the courtroom drama is predictable. True enough. If you’re looking for a John Grisham/Gillian Flynn twist ending, this isn’t your book. Don’t get me wrong–I LOVE twist ending; I WRITE twist endings, but that’s not what this book is about.

So, why did I love it? As a teacher and a parent, I’m fascinated by why some kids with horrible childhoods overcome their upbringing while others are crushed by it. Daniel Hunter has a heroin-addict mother whom he must protect from abusive men who attack him too. But when we meet him he’s a successful lawyer in London. Why? Because he was saved by a loving foster mother, Minnie. What a character Minnie is! Funny, fearless, loving, Minnie is also tortured, guilty, and very flawed. The story of Daniel and Minnie’s relationship forms one thread of the novel, and this thread is mesmerizing. Through many false starts and regressions and violent acts, Minnie gradually gains Daniel’s trust. But then, in one act of betrayal, she loses it. What she does is not particularly surprising. What is fascinating is why she did it and why Daniel holds the grudge for so long. The novel never totally resolves that, so the questions linger after you’re done reading.

Interwoven with Daniel’s story is the tale of Sebastian, a 12 year old accused of murdering his 8 year old neighbor. Unlike Daniel, Seb is not poverty stricken, yet his family is just as troubled as Dan’s. Daniel is both drawn to Seb and disturbed by him as he works on the boy’s defense. The court case unfolds in fascinating detail as we learn both about legal strategy and about Seb’s awful parents. When the two stories end, we’re left to marvel at how utterly self-absorbed kids are–all kids–and how that inability to imagine others’ lives can lead to disaster.

The novel does not wrap up all the loose ends neatly because, well, there are no solutions to problems like these. I did take issue with how abruptly Dan ends his responsibility to Seb. There are times when the author tries a little too hard to be literary, but for the most part, the novel is beautifully written.

THE GUILTY ONE leaves readers with plenty to think about: the bond between biological parents and children, the role that other loving adults play in helping kids thrive, the failures of the criminal justice system, and most of all the responsibilities we each have to one another to avoid being the guilty ones.

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