Lisa Ballantyne may be nervous about the reception of her début, already being dubbed "an international sensation" before even hitting the shelves—but there is nothing faint-hearted about the novel.
Singled out by Little, Brown's imprint Piatkus for the publisher's PR push of the year, The Guilty One tackles the ambitious, gritty and emotive subject of child-on-child murder through a consuming psychological lens. Partly inspired by the real-life torture of two children by two young boys aged just 10 and 12 in a Doncaster park in April 2009, Ballantyne's tale opens with the defence solicitor Daniel Hunter running through the rain to London's Angel police station to meet his next client, Sebastian, who is just 11 years old and being questioned on suspicion of murder.
The case is about the violent death of eight-year-old Ben Stokes, found battered to death in a children's play area in London. But a secondary, deeper narrative runs alongside the text, drawing parallels between Sebastian and Daniel's own troubled childhoods, skilfully teased out by interweaving flashbacks in every alternate chapter. An unravelling intrigue of the secrets in Daniel's past and a tense courtroom drama combine to propel the story forward at page-whipping pace.
Emotionally impenetrable as an adult, in childhood Daniel was sent to live with a foster mother, Minnie, in Brampton, Cumbria, and it is the rollercoaster journey of their complex relationship—and the mystery of its sudden demise—which holds some of the most sustained suspense and throat-aching moments of the book. In fact, according to Ballantyne, it was the conjuring of these two characters—one a young tearaway, the other an old farmwoman—which instigated the work, which has sold into 20 territories worldwide.
"I just got the characters in my head and was really desperate to get them out," Ballantyne says. "It was Daniel and Minnie and their relationship that I became aware of. I was drawn to the idea of a strange child in a foster family. I have always been interested in the idea of a stranger and the effect and influence they can have."
The story trips along compellingly to the suspense-laden outcome of the trial of the unnerving, unreadable and slightly chilling Sebastian. It explores the question of how old a child should be before they can be held legally culpable for their actions, while more critically analysing the way the English justice system treats children. At just 10 years old, England and Wales have the lowest age a child can be tried at in Europe, and Ballantyne's interest in psychology and child development also influenced the story.
"It is always something that has confused me, why children are tried so young," Ballantyne says. "I think what I was trying to touch on is that a lot of the things we do as young children could have grave consequences—perhaps our legal system does not have the best approach to dealing with it. Choice is also something I am very interested in, free will and nature versus nurture. However, at its heart I would say it is a story about the potential for change in any individual," she says.
Living in China, where she worked with VSO as a teacher-trainer before coming back to work at the University of Glasgow, helped Ballantyne to be more objective. She muses: "When you come back to your own culture you almost view it through a pane of glass." To this end, the UK's sensationalist press does not escape her microscope, nor does the role that parents play in society, as Ballantyne remembers when the Doncaster torturers were on trial. "That was in the press at the same time I was thinking about the book—those two little boys. It is a terrible crime of course, but you do realise that these are really damaged people and they are still young children," she says.
Ballantyne's novel was written in just 12 months, mainly after work, and will now be subject to a PR "buzz"—including her own website (lisaballantyne.com) featuring exclusive downloads, video content, a Q&A with the author and information for reading groups. Piatkus says: "A highly targeted publicity campaign will be implemented, with the aim of achieving widespread national coverage including print and online reviews, interviews and features, and broadcast interviews." The publicity campaign will dovetail with the marketing, trade and consumer promotions.
As for her next novel, another psychological tale—this time about family, obedience and rebellion—Ballantyne, who cites Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan as her influences, need not worry about scribbling away after work to make her next deadline—she has given up her job to concentrate on writing. "It is a dream I have had since I was really young. Even if it doesn't work, I want to give this a shot," she says.
Pub date 30/08/2012
Formats PBO £6.99/ e-book/audio digital download
ISBNs 9780749957285/ 9781405511681/7737
Rights sold 20 territories including US (William Morrow)
Editor Emma Beswetherick, Piatkus
Agent Nicola Barr, Greene & Heaton
1973 born in West Lothian
1991–95 studied English Literature, University of St Andrews
2000–02 Features writer for Beijing Jianwen magazine, China
2002–05 International Officer, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
2005–12 Senior International officer at the University of Glasgow responsible for Africa and Middle East, and then East Asia
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