Anger? Bewilderment? Nausea? Inertia? Hatred? Despair?
Grandmother Ruth Sutton experiences all those emotions when her daughter Lizzie is killed at home in a brutal attack. Though police catch the perpetrator, his arrest and trial bring no relief to Ruth. If anything her feelings of grief and hatred grow heavier over the years, overwhelming her so much that she can barely function. It takes all her energy to look after her small grand daughter and to keep afloat financially through a part time job at the local library. She wants revenge. She wants answers: “Why did you kill her?” “How did she die?” Above all she wants the killer to admit his guilt.
She begins writing to him in prison, hoping the letters to the man she hates more than anyone else in the world, will help find some resolution from the pain that threatens to envelope her.
I hate you.Those three words can barely contain the depth, the soaring height of this hatred. Nearly four years and what has taken me by surprise is that these feelings, of rage and the desire for vengeance, have not diminished but have grown. … Taking what is left of my life and leaching the goodness, the joy, the optimism from it.
With each passing month the monster grows stronger. I lie awake at night imagining all the many and lurid ways I could hurt you… Your violence has bred this violence in me, a cuckoo child that would devour me, from the inside out.
Through her letters we discover the events of that night four years ago when Ruth’s daughter was discovered bludgeoned to death; the effect on her son-in-law Jack who discovered the body and her granddaughter Florence; the police investigation and finally the arrest.
Up to this point, Staincliffe showed a masterful command of her epistolary device, cleverly using it to reflect not only Ruth’s emotions but also to convey critical elements of the timeline. For about 75% of the novel I was hooked.
But once we got to the court case, the device of the letters fell apart. Instead of using them to drip feed us with the backstory, Staincliffe gets Ruth to describe at length the testimony of each witness, the examinations and cross examinations and then the final address to the jury by prosecution and defence lawyers. It slowed what had been, until then, a very fast paced novel. No problem for me there. But the major problem was one of plausibility. Why did Ruth need to include all these details when the very person who was the intended reader had sat through all of those events and heard them himself? The only reason of course was that she was writing this info for me the book reader not Jack the letter reader. Ruth’s voice, the most compelling element of the novel, consequently got drowned out by the detail.
Fortunately Staincliffe recovers control in the final section of the novel and returns to the immediacy of Ruth’s story. Earlier this woman had accused the killer of robbing her of her identity:
Not only have you taken Lizzie’s life and shattered ours, not only have you turned Lizzie from an ordinary person into a victim, but you have twisted my identity as well. Warped it for evermore. For most people I will be Ruth, the woman whose daughter was killed. The mother of a murder victim.
The Ruth we see at the end is somewhat different to the woman we meet at the beginning of the novel. The raw emotion that jumped off the page has been moderated but the pain is still there. Did she manage to find forgiveness? You’ll just have to read the book if you want to discover if she became reconciled to the situation to any extent.
If you can suspend your disbelief over the structural flaws of the court room section, then you’ll find this an engrossing read and one that will get you thinking about your own attitudes to punishment. As the blurb puts it: “Can we really forgive those who do us the gravest wrong? Could you?”
Letters to My Daughter’s Killer by Cath Staincliffe was published in 2014 by C & R Crime. In addition to writing novels, Cath Staincliffe is a radio playwright and the creator of a hit series on British TV called Blue Murder.