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February 20, 2012 / John Sheridan

Review: Defending Jacob by William Landay

Links: Amazon, Amazon UK, Book Depository UK

I decided to read this following a ringing endorsement by Joseph Finder hailing it as one of the best books of the year for 2012…that’s some claim to make in January. (For further details see:

Defending Jacob is recounted from the perspective of Andy Barber who is the lead assistant district attorney and who normally takes the murder cases that arise as he’s primarily a trial lawyer rather than the political operators found elsewhere in the DA’s office but nothing about what his family are to undergo can be considered normal. The book deals with the difficult subject matter of the death of a child which is exacerbated when his own son, the Jacob of the title, becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a classmate. Beware potential spoilers to follow below.

The only thing possibly worse than the death of a child is your child being responsible for the death of another and the novel charts the trials and tribulations of the Barber family through the initial murder, suspicion, arrest and trial. His two parents adopt very different coping strategies as Jacob’s mother, Laurie, turns inwards and disintegrates while Andy at times appears strangely distant and adopts a “my child can do no wrong” stance that appears to be at odds with his statement of “I don’t have a parenting style. I’m just making it up as I go.” Through it all former colleagues and friends largely isolate them.

A good novel will often go above and beyond pure plot and character to provoke you into thinking about your beliefs and attitudes and I had just starting thinking about the nature versus nurture debate in relation to child rearing when it made its appearance in this book. One of the psychological conditions referred to of reactive attachment disorder could be the nightmare of any parent who has had to send a child to daycare!

As mentioned previously, the novel is recounted from the point of view of Andy Barber, Jacob’s father, which raises questions as to what legal events have unfolded as he is being questioned by his replacement as ADA in front of a grand jury but given the trial is in the past at this point (even if we don’t yet know the outcome) it makes you question as to what else has happened for these circumstances to arise.

At different points, either parent could be accused of trying to pervert the course of justice so the confession and suicide of the mooted alternative suspect comes as a bolt from the blue particularly as it had been largely dismissed as wishful thinking on Andy Barber’s part while in his role as ADA, the question that springs to mind of course is whether it was actually a forced confession and staged suicide courtesy of “Father” O’Leary – the old ex-con associate of Jacob’s grandfather – Bloody Billy Barber.

An irresistible impulse to keep reading to reach the conclusion – read the novel and you’ll understand the reference. Overall I was impressed by this and can understand why it has generated some good buzz and is riding high in The NY Times bestseller list. It is due to be published in the UK in mid-March.

On a personal note, I’ve added his two previous novels to my constantly expanding wanted list.

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