Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday
Paul Torday published his first novel in 2006, the international bestseller (and as of 2011 moderately successful film) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Since then his publishing average has exceeded a novel a year, and, judging by Light Shining in the Forest, his production line is running largely on fumes.
Billed as a change of direction from his earlier comic novels, Light Shining in the Forest styles itself as a gritty state-of-the-nation crime thriller. There are morally bankrupt journalists, bent coppers, lazy government officials who claim the cost of their macchiatos back from the public purse, and alcoholic single mothers sponging off “a benefit system … that rewards the production of children with money, housing and other prizes.” Regrettably, the tone of an outraged Daily Express columnist resurfaces throughout.
The crime Torday selects to drive his plot is the abduction and murder of children. The epigraph is a quotation from the Sun, already a repackaged statement from Catherine Meyer (of Parents and Abducted Children Together), informing us that “every five minutes a child goes missing in the UK”. This statistic bobs up in the mouths of various characters in more or less real time as one reads, which, if intentional, is a resonant touch.
Elsewhere Torday’s treatment of his material is less effective, if not downright uncomfortable; the interminable lists of trees he uses in his establishing shot of the gloomy forest where the story reaches its climax are rolled out again when he glosses the horrifying real-life abuse cases of Victoria Climbié, Kyra Ishaq and Baby Peter. Both the trees and the reality of these crimes serve only as background however, with Torday instead choosing to front-end a story of silly pseudo-religious dream sequences and what are straight-facedly described as “miracles”.
The force behind this by now increasingly dominant plot strand is Theo Constantine, who appears to have been conceived immaculately by a woman named Mary; he goes on to suffer stigmata, misread by blundering child services as signs of abuse. Conversion emerges as Torday’s real MO as the book progresses, with one central character eventually taking holy orders. Bewilderingly, in a book that claims to be about child abuse, the line “priests are natural teachers” is uttered sincerely.
While the thriller plot is pedestrian, there are some genuinely creepy moments in the lonely forest and even some of the dream sequences come off well, but ultimately this is a cheap exploitation yarn.
Light Shining in the Forest is published by Phoenix (an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd) at the hardback price of £12.99. For further information visit here.