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by Minette Walters
G. P.Putnam's Sons, June 2002
374 pages
ISBN: 0399148620

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Minette Walters has a reputation for writing dark novels and some readers, at least, were put off by her recent THE SHAPE OF SNAKES, in which cats experienced grievous injury.  No cats are harmed in ACID ROW. Nevertheless, this is not a comforting read,.  It is, however,  a challenging one.

First, a bit of background. Though I thought I was relatively unshockable, I remember being profoundly shaken by the images some years  ago of the crowds baying after the van carrying the boys who had killed Jamie Bulger. It was evident that if the police lines had faltered,  those two would have been reduced to small bloody scraps in a matter of seconds. The crime itself was horrifying; the behaviour of the adult  crowd was worse. Add to this the more recent response to the "name and shame" campaign run by a certain British newspaper to out convicted  pedophiles, a campaign that has resulted in vigilante attacks, at least one of them directed against a woman pediatrician's office on the grounds, evidently, that her shingle was seen to be advertising her predilection.

All of this lies behind ACID ROW.  The action takes place almost entirely on a single hot day in July on a "sink estate"  (one where no one would live had they the choice or an ounce of power to  make the council re-house them). The rumour has gone round that two pedophiles have been secretly housed on the estate and that they are  responsible for the abduction of a missing little girl. Fuelled by misinformation, rumour, despair, drugs, and the refusal of the cops to act inside a no-go area, a riot ensues and terrible things happen as a result of it.

If this were all there were to it, the  book would be almost unendurable,  But Walters does two things that redeem it from utter despair.  First she creates characters who rise to the demands of their situation.  They may be reluctant heroes, but they are heroes nonetheless.  Most obvious is Jimmy, a large black man fresh out of jail for thieving, who wants only to protect his pregnant partner but who keeps getting involved in saving others along the way.  There is Sophie, the doctor who is held hostage by an elderly rapist but who never loses her commitment to ministering to the estate.  But even more striking, in some ways, because they are  less dramatic, are the women who take responsibility for the mayhem they have inadvertently started and magnificently stand firm to limit the destruction.  Second, Walters handles class considerations with great sensitivity.  We never get the sense that no matter how disrupted the lives of her characters, that they are by nature or by class hopelessly damned or that they can be excused as a group from taking responsibility for their lives.  Nor is the middle class exempt from crime and immorality.

This was not an easy book to bring off.  It is one that I cannot recommend highly enough, though it does contain scenes from which some readers may which to avert their eyes.

This review is based on the Canadian paperback edition, which appears identical to the UK paperback.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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