This was one of those books. The ones that make me stay up till 3am because I simply have to see the story through. Sarah Sultoon’s novel takes us straight into the action, starting in 2006 with a very tense scene where a group of men are discussing the terms for the exchange of a trafficked girl. Once outside and in their van, there’s a huge sigh of relief from everyone – the man is a journalist and he is deep undercover trying to expose the horrifying trade in young girls for sexual exploitation. In my head as I continued reading, was the author’s harrowing description of the girl in question. She’s shown off as if at a market, stunned by the terrible experiences she’s gone through so far. A young girl called Marie is working with the team and she has found the sight of the girl deeply upsetting, but is committed to bringing these people to justice and sometimes that means confronting awful practices or seeming complicit in acts that make them sick to their stomach. This time though, they’re sure they’ve got them.
We’re then taken back to our second narrator, a 15 year old called Carly living in an Army town called Warchester. The barracks loom large in town, the pubs are full of squaddies and even the roads have lanes specifically for Army vehicles. The Army has loomed large in Carly’s life too. Her dad is dead, killed in action. She and her brother Jason have never met him, but Jason followed his dad into the family business and is now stationed at the barracks. Carly lives in army accommodation with her mum and half-sister Kayleigh, who is still a baby. They live off her Dad’s pension, but it doesn’t always go far when Mum drinks. Carly is used to coming home to a mum who’s insensible, slumped in front of the TV and Kayleigh screaming her lungs out because she hasn’t been changed or fed all day. Carly is just about holding it together so that social services aren’t on their backs, but it isn’t easy. That’s why she needs time to blow off steam and just be a 15 year old, so when her friend Rachel invites her to a party at the barracks she is tempted. Rachel has a contact, and a secret way in where they won’t be seen. However, I could sense something ominous in Rachel’s reassurances to Carly – to just go along with what they want to do. Her instructions could be construed as grooming and I was worried about exactly what type of party this was going to be.
Our narrative flits between the two different women. Marie has clawed her way up into journalism the hard way, but is a diligent junior member of the term. That is until some news comes through that derails their trafficking expose and seems to shock Marie to her core. A press conference is suddenly called about a previous investigation called Operation Andromeda and the commissioner herself will be making the announcement. Every media outlet needs to be down at New Scotland Yard now, and when the announcement comes the room falls silent. The commissioner recaps for the press that Andromeda was an investigation into the sexual exploitation of young girls by those in the Army, followed by prosecutions. What happened to Carly all those years ago, happened to others too. The commissioner talks about failed victims, up to and beyond the dates they originally investigated. Girls who were let down and soldiers left to commit more crimes on further generations of girls. The news team know that there were potentially two girls exploited and abused in Warchester: Girl A who gave evidence in the original court case, but also Baby Girl A, removed from her parent after the abuse and taken into the care system. Both were given new identities.
This is a complex story in terms of who knew what was happening, who is part of the cover up and who is working on the inside to expose what happened. Although it adds to the tension and rapid pace of the novel it isn’t what grabbed hold of me. It was the human stories that really moved me and its easy in a case this big and a conspiracy so complex to forget what has happened to the individuals involved. By including Carly’s narrative we can see how this happened on a human level. In a town where kids are brought up to revere the army and its men, with few other opportunities and insidious grooming technique at play, it was easy. Rachel is the girl on the inside, recruiting her friends just as she was once recruited – this type of abuse is generational. She coaches Carly in what to do, how to please and slowly ratchets up the pressure for her to do more extreme things until it becomes Carly’s normal too. Generations of Warchester men have joined up and done their service. She’s doing what generations of Warchester girls have done, they do their service too. Yet, because Rachel is over 16 when the original investigation happens she could be tried as an adult for grooming the younger girls, despite having also been groomed into this behaviour when she was a child. The author shows us what happens when abuse is institutional, when safeguarding fails and a community is complicit. It’s a very hard read in parts – the neglect as upsetting as the sexual abuse – but it should be hard and people should be shocked by it. I felt the author had done her research and depicted the psychological effects of abuse thoroughly, showing how they persist into adulthood. She showed the effect of being let down, by family, friends, community and the agencies that are meant to help. However, Carly shows us how one person’s persistence and courage can force justice, of a kind. I love that this author was brave enough to write this novel and that she found a publishing house to share her vision.
Meet The Author
Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. As passionate about fiction as nonfiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if…..