Imagine if someone close to you was accused of a sexual crime. Would you stick by them? Throw them to the wolves? Bury your head in the sand? Be perplexed and question just how well you really know them?
This is the premise behind Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, a fast-paced and timely novel about rape culture that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize.
The story kicks off with the arrest of George Woodbury, a popular science teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip. The allegations are particularly shocking because Woodbury is something of a local hero and has won Teacher of the Year year after year.
When he is detained by police, his family — his 17-year-old over-achieving daughter; his adult son, who is a lawyer; and his beloved wife, a dedicated and much-loved emergency room nurse — are immediately thrown into disarray. The novel focuses on the outfall on these three characters (their stories are told in alternate chapters), which makes for a gripping and thought-provoking read.
Interestingly, we never hear George’s side of the story, nor do we hear from his accusers. This means the reader is cast in exactly the same position as George’s family, never quite sure of his guilt or innocence, and never finding out the specific details of the allegations.
As the story unfolds it’s interesting to see the effect on George’s loved ones as doubts about his innocence begin to creep in. From the outset his wife, Joan, is steadfast in her belief, telling her not-always-supportive sister: “You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because somebody accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.” But later, when she entertains the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might have done something wrong, she tries to find excuses for such abhorrent behaviour:
If George was guilty, and she was far from convinced, then he could be sick. She took a sip of black coffee and contemplated this. She understood sick. Everyone is generally pleased to reduce a complicated situation to the notion of evil. Or a typical sleazeball man. He’s just evil. Evil is a word that’s lost its meaning recently, like bully. Overused, and weakened. She dissolved an antacid tablet in a glass of water. If it’s a sickness, it would not be his fault. There could be an undiagnosed tumour in his orbitofrontal lobe, causing him to have no control over his impulses.
Later still, she asks herself whether it’s “possible to be an intelligent human being — perceptive, intuitive — and also be married to someone who fools you so intensely, who is entirely a fraud, and you have no idea?”
George’s daughter, Sadie, is less sure from the start. She knows the girls involved — she goes to school with them — and isn’t sure why they’d make something like this up. She’s afraid that if he’s guilty, she is guilty by association. Whatever the case, the damage is irreparable.
If only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head — and people around you believe it — you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.
His son Andrew is slightly more sympathetic to the situation, not least because as a gay teenager he has firsthand experience at being cast as a social pariah. He’s also very much aware that his first sexual relationship — with a man much older than himself and in a position of power — could so easily have been misunderstood by other people had they been aware of it. But even so, he also goes through moments of doubt, never quite sure of his father’s guilt or innocence, preferring instead to be practical about things and using his legal know-how to help George’s case.
Despite The Best Kind of People being an issues-based novel — it embraces everything from teenage romance to feminism, gay rights to white privilege — this story is nothing short of a page turner. It’s a compelling read for so many reasons — will George be convicted? Will he go to prison? Will the family stay together, or fall apart? Will the local community ever accept the Woodbury family ever again or cast them out into the wilderness forever?
Admittedly, I thought some of the view points and characters presented here were well-worn tropes — the wronged wife, the loyal son, the busy-body interfering sister-in-law — and that some of the writing fell into cliché. But then Whittall would include a sentence that would make me sit up and take notice. Here’s just two examples:
By his second glass he felt the balm of his arrogance returning, like a sly old lover slipping him a hotel key card.
Improbable as it seemed, they settled into a new routine during this holding pattern — like when you’ve put gauze on a wound, and you’re waiting it out, hoping no infections seep in.
By the end of the book I realised it was nothing short of a stunning character study, for Whittall takes three seemingly normal and ordinary people — albeit white, privileged and living distinctly upper middle class lives — and shows what happens to them when their worlds are turned upside down through no fault of their own.
What I liked most, however, was that it generates more questions than answers — book groups are going to have an absolute field day with it! — yet one thing is abundantly clear. Regardless of George’s guilt or innocence, the human toll — on his family, himself and his community — is irreparable. Once an accusation like this is out in the open, you can never make it disappear. That, I think, is the real message behind this exceedingly good novel.
For another take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow Giller jury member Naomi’s review.
This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.