Book review: Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

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THIS novel is a curious hybrid. It is a crime novel, and a good one which, as well as offering a mystery, dwells movingly on the consequences that a crime may have for the family of a victim.

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 350pp, £12.99

But it is also a socio-political satire, and it has a mystical-religious theme. This makes it sound like a mess, which, however, it isn’t. Paul Torday contrives to bring these different strands together, and to do so convincingly.

It begins in the sprawling Kielder Forest on the Anglo-Scottish Border, a place which can be dark and seem menacing. Geordie works there as a woodman, cutting trees and stacking and transporting logs on contract. He always works alone and for a long time the work has been satisfying. But now things are going wrong. He is always tired and he is seeing things which are not there, or may not be there.

His life has been disturbed. His stepson Theo has disappeared, and Geordie and Theo’s mother, Mary, can no longer communicate. Geordie loved Theo but even before he disappeared strange things were happening, Marks like wounds or bruises would appear on his hands and feet and on his side, and also on his brow, as if a crown of thorns had been pressed on his head. He was examined by doctors who found no cause. The police, however, suspect he was an abused child and have him down as a runaway.

We then cut to Norman Stoker, recently appointed Children’s Czar for the north-east of England. Norman’s career has been exemplary; he ticks all the boxes, the model bureaucrat, a fast-rising member of the caring profession. He has never stepped out of line: “He knows the child protection industry like few others” even though “there is no recorded instance of him ever actually meeting a child”.

Torday tracks Norman’s rise to his present eminence with a measured but scornful irony; it’s as good as Trollope. But something has gone wrong. There has been a change of policy. Norman’s position has not been officially confirmed. He has an office and a secretary, Pippa, but nothing to do except draw his salary and send Pippa to fetch him coffee, for which he bills the taxpayer.

Then another child disappears, and then another. The police investigation is at best perfunctory. Lots of children disappear – the best estimate is that a child goes missing in the UK every five minutes but most of them turn up.

Willie, a young journalist on the local paper, bored with reporting the opening of hairdressing salons and filling stations, sees that these cases of missing children and police indifference may be his opportunity to get the big story that will kick-start his career. He approaches Norman, who is at first taken aback, then gradually interested, spurred on by Pippa.

Torday then takes a risk. He lets us know who the guilty man is, though his identity has not been established.

This leads our investigators into murky waters. There seems to have been some official cover-up, a clamp-down which accounts for the determined inactivity of the police, and the obstruction they are practising. We head for a violent, even bloody conclusion. But before then, Norman, who was brought up a Catholic , though he has long abandoned his faith, has had a revelation. Might these mysterious marks coming and going on Theo’s body have been stigmata, the wounds on the body of the crucified Christ. In some mysterious way, it seems to him, and also to the others, though they don’t have even the remnants of his faith, that Theo is speaking to them , guiding them to the solution, and perhaps more than that.

As I say, it shouldn’t work, this mixture of the mundane, the official and the spiritual. The themes of the novel are discordant. When the drama is over and the case comes before the courts, it is all arranged comfortably. A satisfactory explanation of everything that happened will be presented. Norman’s version is simply too improbable, defying rationality. Instead, something like normality must be restored.

When Willie takes his version of events to the editor of a national newspaper, he is told “we don’t do God”. But Norman, the plump self-satisfied bureaucrat, has learned to do God again, and it is evidence of Torday’s skill that Norman’s version of what happened won’t be rejected by the reader.

We move from comedy, through pain, to a greater mystery than the mystery with which, on the ordinary level of crime and detection, the author has gripped us.