The Source, by Sarah Sultoon, tells a hard hitting tale of the sexual exploitation of children. At its core is a paedophile ring run by an army unit working on high level intelligence. Although certain key figures in this setup are eventually brought to justice – if that is ever possible for such crimes – there remain rumours of perpetrators who have proved untouchable due to the nature of their work and security clearance.
The tale is told across two timelines. In 2006, a young journalist named Marie is investigating human trafficking with her colleagues from a national news channel. Just as their story is coming together, it is announced that a police investigation into child sex abuse within the army, uncovered a decade earlier, is to be reopened. Marie and her colleagues are required to make this development their priority. The human trafficking story is to be shelved.
The earlier timeline opens in 1996. Thirteen year old Carly is barely coping with the life she has been dealt. Carly’s alcoholic mother is incapable of looking after her toddler daughter, Kayleigh, so Carly must try to keep her little sister clean and fed while still attending school – necessary to ward off social services. The girls’ elder brother, Jason, is a soldier at the local army base – following in his dead father’s footsteps. When he cannot deliver food and other supplies to the family home, the sisters go hungry. Carly’s best friend, Rachel, suggests they both attend parties they have been invited to at the army base. This offers the chance for some fun along with welcome rare attention. However, these outings quickly turn into something more sinister and damaging.
I struggled with this tale for a number of reasons. The opening chapters detailing the human trafficking investigation were written as a fast moving, dangerous assignment that Marie appeared badly suited to deal with. At key moments she would lose concentration. Her stress reaction throughout the story is to puke or faint. I lost track of the number of times she was: distracted and didn’t hear what could be important information, fumbled equipment, swallowed down bile. This is hardly the cool, clear head needed when trying to appear in control of a situation involving dangerous criminals – potentially putting her colleagues at risk. As the tale moved forwards I wondered how the human trafficking investigation would be woven into the army base story. I was left disappointed.
Carly’s experiences were more strongly written. Sadly, the supporting cast on this earlier timeline appeared two-dimensional. Many people are mentioned but not developed. It is never explained why Jason acted as he did – was he simply a horrible person or perhaps being bribed or blackmailed? It is a challenge to comprehend the choices he made, why he stayed. As the two timelines come together, such questions about character behaviour – the whys and wherefores – are too often left hanging.
The author is a former CNN news executive so will likely be much more familiar with the realities of characters such as these than I can be. Nevertheless, reading the book I was struck by the sickening horror of what was going on but not sufficiently drawn into the various predicaments. There are attempts to build tension through set piece scenes – an underground room containing a shadowed man, clandestine meetings requiring code words and pseudonyms, a broken down train in which other passengers appear inexplicably deaf to pleas for assistance. Actions described in these, including physical violence, are rarely developed further or even referenced.
Marie is obviously a badly damaged individual, doing her best to cope with personal demons but struggling. It is explained why she wanted to be a journalist, and how she landed the role, but this explanation made me question how she had been allowed to survive. I wanted to be rooting for her – of course I did – but cold-blooded criminals, particularly those holding high office, find ways to quietly dispatch inconvenient witnesses or those they believe have reneged on agreements.
The denouement suggests a degree of closure but I was left with too many unanswered questions. It is depressing to consider how the Carlys and Kayleighs of this world find ways to cope with day to day living after what wicked men and their accomplices have done to them. It may be true that Carly is not entirely innocent – as treatment of Rachel’s character serves to demonstrate. Nevertheless, their experiences deserve to be heard as the author has attempted here.
That I did not derive satisfaction from the tale may be down to the fact that I have read other books exploring similar subject matter that I have gained greater satisfaction from – that expanded my awareness of the logistics of child abuse and slavery beyond the evil perpetrated. This was not a book I enjoyed due to the style of the writing and lack of wider character development. Other readers have looked on it favourably as a thriller but, sadly, it wasn’t for me.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda.