I was quite excited to see Australian author Jean Bedford’s name appearing on a new releases for 2016 list and promptly added the title to my library requests list. The copy they dutifully provided looked too dog-eared to be this year’s and I have since discovered that Endeavour Press – independent publisher of eBooks, many of which are out of print – have released a new edition of a book first published in 1997. My review is of the earlier edition.
I apologise in advance if what follows sounds confused. Overall I liked the book – it is very readable, has a high pageturnyness score and tackles a difficult subject thoughtfully – but there are some elements that make me pretty darned uncomfortable. Though of course that is likely the point.
Action in NOW YOU SEE ME centres on a group of adults, most of whom were at University together some years ago. They are an incestuous little clique – having multiple coupling variations between them and seeming reluctant to welcome members’ partners or other newcomers into their circle. The fact that the reader easily believes any one of them could be a child murderer operating undetected in Sydney is an indication of how dysfunctional they all are. I know that in classic whodunits it is normal for an entire cast of characters to operate as the suspect pool but for some reason I find it easier to swallow that premise when applied to a collection of strangers invited to a country house for the weekend than a group of long-time friends and their partners. To be fair though this book does offer the notion that people with similar backgrounds tend to be drawn to each other as a reasonable explanation for such disturbed individuals all knowing each other.
We know one of the group is a killer because that person tells part of the story via a series of italicized chapters detailing their own childhood of extreme abuse and the actions they’ve undertaken as an adult. Regular readers of my ramblings will know I’m not a huge fan of this literary device but I have to acknowledge that most of my annoyance is due to overuse and it’s entirely probable that in 1997 italicized thoughts from inside the mind of a serial killer was some years away from becoming a tired cliché.
That said those passages are graphic. The violence is not, on consideration, gratuitous, but it is very, very graphic. Readers wary of this type of content should consider themselves warned: it is at the borderline of what I would normally read and I considered stopping a couple of times.
The author has gone to some pains to let us know her depictions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children have been included in NOW YOU SEE ME for reasons other than to titillate. For example political theorist Hannah Arendt, whose 1970 essay On Violence is still an influential work on the subject, gets a deliberate mention and there are other signs that the passages are not merely aiming to shock or entertain. Rather, their aim is to reflect reality. A harsh reality no doubt but one which did – and still does – exist outside the pages of fiction for too many children and which society has for most of history swept under the proverbial carpet. I couldn’t help but ponder if Bedford might make different choices if writing the book today when there are some signs, such as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which has now been hearing evidence around the country for three years, that collectively we are more aware of these realities and are taking steps to prevent future occurrences. But perhaps she would still feel that the story needs these passages to provide readers with a real sense that child abuse takes many forms, is not always perpetrated by identifiable no-hopers and has lasting and unimaginable consequences for its victims. Personally I think the story could have had the same powerful narrative and thematic impact without so many detailed descriptions of abusive acts but accept this issue is a subjective one and that the author’s intentions are sound. And there’s no arguing: she does get her point across.
Although I baulked at accepting them as a collective suspect pool I thought the individual characterisations were very good. The emotional baggage that the core group are all carrying manifests itself in various ways, all of them realistic. The two that particularly stood out for me were the couple struggling to deal with the male member’s need to dress as a woman. Both go through a range of emotions including embarrassment, confusion, selfishness and despair and the reader is brought along with them, feeling equally sympathetic for both parties going through a difficult experience.
Noel Baker is the outsider: a journalist who becomes convinced that some of the deaths of vulnerable children which have occurred in Sydney in recent times are the responsibility of a single killer rather than the various parents and guardians who have been convicted of the crimes. She struggles to generate official interest in her theory but does make friends with a female police constable, who also happens to be the girlfriend of one of the core suspect pool, and they start looking at cases in which things might not be as they first appear. Noel is realistically portrayed. Stumbling about somewhat given that her theory is implausible and difficult to prove regardless of its veracity and when it becomes clear who the likely perpetrator is as she says to her boyfriend
I can’t think straight. It was like a game – working out the rules, angling for the moves. Then it stopped being a game, it was someone I knew, someone I cared for. It made me go to water.
This sensibility – that there is a chasm between intellectual exercise and reality – should exist in more crime novels but rarely seems to be acknowledged.
I even liked the ending of this novel though it won’t be for everyone. It’s too ambiguous for some but I thought it fitting. Unpleasant and anger-inducing but more believable than a resolution which tied everything up neatly would have been.
So I am glad to have read NOW YOU SEE ME though there were points when I thought I might not be. The graphic nature of its content, particularly the depictions of violence being inflicted upon children, will be too much for some but I did find it worth persevering through the difficult content. The book has a lot to say about the insidiousness of child abuse and its ever-lasting consequences and the complexities of investigating it and the impact of that activity on those tasked with doing it. It’s certainly not a book easily forgotten.
This is the ninth book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Random House 
Length: 306 pages