Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Wendy James
Paperback, ISBN: 9781460752388, May 2019, 352 pages, 29.99 AUD
Don’t let the sensationalised cover fool you. Wendy James is a significant writer, and her brilliantly written fiction explores very topical issues. In the case of her latest novel, The Accusation, the story pivots around the abduction and escape of eighteen year old Ellie Canning, who has become something of a celebrity. James tells the story using multiple structures that include police transcripts, the transcript of a television series about Ellie’s abduction, and differing diary styled accounts from Susannah Wells, a former television star and now local drama teacher, and Honor Fielding, Ellie’s talent agent and Susannah’s neighbour and new friend. There is also Chip, Susannah’s new partner. Chip is a likeable womanizer who vaguely resembles Chips Rafferty “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Chip’s brother becomes Susannah’s lawyer and so the threads of the story entangle in a way that creates a fascinating montage. As the story progresses, the objective truth becomes increasingly elusive, as the story explores the nature of journalism, celebrity culture, social media, and the way in which certain people are idolised or demonised.
The story is based loosely around the 1753 case of Elizabeth Canning, who claimed to be abducted by two women. James took the names of the real life character, including Susannah Wells, Mary Squires and even the London town’s name Enfield Wash, but the story is made into an Australian one, set in country NSW. The themes have also been modernised, with the pervasiveness of social media a key focal point of the story. Post-abduction Ellie has become an influencer, and Susannah’s vilification, which includes the exploitation of scandals and tragedies in Susannah’s past, becomes utterly believable.
To say that the book is engaging is a gross understatement. The Accusation is the kind of story that you miss meals to finish, sneak read, and stay up late to keep going. It’s ultra-fast paced, and the speed of the plot belies just how good James’ writing is. James is a master of suspense, providing subtle hints, rich description and exacting details with legalistic precision. As the key protagonist, Susannah is the most compelling character, and her confusion at what is happening to her, and the way in which her story becomes entangled with Ellie’s draws the reader in:
There should be something that I can see, some sign, a flicker in those beautiful green eyes, some moment where she falls out of character, where I can say, Gotcha. I’m trained, after all, to spot these moments: the random out-of-character licking of lips, idle hair-twirling, random blinking, an unscripted step backward or forward, a tone that’s not quite authentic. But there’s nothing. Her performance is pitch-perfect. (6)
James’ other characters are also crafted with economy and lightness. Take, for example, Mary, Susannah’s once elusive all round bad mother, who, now in the throes of dementia, has moved back in with her:
Mary had her hair in two long messy braids, with a few grey feathers (from a pillow, a feather-duster?) poked in the ends. She was wearing a long floaty stretch-cotton skirt – hers – and a loose low-cut raw cheesecloth top – a relic from my misspent youth. Her feet were bare, and almost fluorescently pale, her toenails painted badly in an assortment of bright colours, the enamel covering almost as much toe as nail. She had two circles of bright red on her cheeks – my lipstick, no doubt – and her eyes were rimmed with black. (49)
The many narrative threads and themes that come together seamlessly in The Accusation include the nature of female friendship, parenting and neglect, mature romance, the impact of fame and the fickle interests and obsessions of the media and public, the impact of the past on the present, and the fragile anxieties of the teen mind – something James’ handles particularly well in all of her novels. The way in which James slowly uncovers the different psychological processes at play, and the shock, intrigue, and subsequent transformations that occur from the pivotal event in the story, makes for a read that is both pleasurable and fascinating. James isn’t afraid to play with humorous meta-plot elements, like having Susannah run a drama class session on imagining and recreating the character of Ellie:
Parts of it were bizarrely familiar: the phrase itself – ‘you are under arrest’; the modulations of the detective’s voice the way the world wobbled around me – contracting, expanding, contracting again, as I tried to make some sense of what was happening. All of this, every word, every action, felt as if I was inside a living cliché. (140)
Uncovering the truth is enough impetus to keep the story moving forward towards its somewhat surprising conclusion. The Accusation is a deep psychological inquiry into the impact of social media on our perceptions of fame, guilt and innocence, but it’s also a terrific and very satisfying whodunit that will keep readers guessing until the very last moment.