Sweet William by Iain Maitland

Whom the gods would destroy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner!

I don’t want to say too much about the plot since it’s always best to know as little as possible in advance when reading thrillers, but I will mention that little William, who’s only three, goes through a lot, so if you really struggle with bad things happening to fictional children this may not be for you. There is no sexual abuse however.

The book is written in two voices. One is a third-person, past tense narrator who tells us the events of this forty-eight hours as they happen to William’s new family, who adopted him after his mum died and his father was put in the hospital. Although we do learn the names of these characters, for the most part the narrator refers to them as ‘the young woman’, ‘the old man’, etc. This is a fantastic device for keeping us distanced from them – in fact, they’re not even particularly likeable in the beginning – so that somehow we’re not sucked in to being 100% on their side – not for a while, anyway.

I can see her, evil cow, trying to keep up with Veitch. She’s holding William’s hand and every time he stumbles, because she’s going way too fast for his little legs, she pulls him to his feet and keeps walking.
Poor little mite.
I’d like to push on up behind her and jostle her to the ground next time she does that and then, as she stumbles and falls, I’d take little William by the hand and be away into the crowd.
He’d look up at me in surprise and I’d look down at him and smile and say something sweet and kind and he’d smile back as we disappeared away together forever.
You know what, I might even kiss him on the forehead. That’s what you do, that is.
Kiss little children.

Orrey however tells us his own story in the present tense, talking directly to us (or maybe talking to another voice inside his head, but the effect is the same). He doesn’t have much of a plan and has to react to each event as it happens. Frequently, a chapter will end with him summing up what he thinks his options are and then asking what would you do? Now, it’s perfectly possible I’m a very sick person because I found myself being forced to agree that sometimes the most extreme option was really the only possible one. When I discovered that at one point I was agreeing that he really had to do something that no normal person would ever dream of doing, I laughed at how brilliantly the author had pushed me so far inside Orrey’s insane world view that he’d made it seem almost logical.

Despite the darkness of the story, Maitland keeps the graphic stuff firmly off the page for the most part, though that doesn’t stop it from seeping into the reader’s imagination. But it does make it a bearable – dare I say, even an entertaining – read, which wouldn’t have been the case for me had every event been described in glorious technicolor. The oblique references to what has happened during the gaps in Orrey’s narration actually frequently made me laugh in a guilty kind of way – there’s a thin vein of coal black humour buried very insidiously in there, I think, in the early parts, at least. Although the stuff relating to William is difficult to read, if Orrey has a redeeming feature it’s that he truly does love his son, which somehow made it possible for me to remain in his company if not on his side.

Iain Maitland

However, as the book goes on, the darkness becomes ever deeper and Maitland changes the focus with a great deal of subtlety and skill so that gradually our sympathies become fixed where they should have been all along – with William and his adopted parents. But we are left inside Orrey’s unreliable mind right up to the end, so that the book might end but our stress levels take a good deal longer to get back to normal. I finished it four days ago, and I’m still waiting…

I believe this is Maitland’s fictional début – well, I’m kinda speechless at that. While the subject matter might make this a tough read for some, for me the quality of the writing, the way the author nudges and pushes the reader to go exactly where he wants, and the utterly believable and unique voice of Orrey, all make this a stunning achievement. Set aside a few hours to read it in a block though – you’ll either stop for good very quickly or you won’t want to stop at all…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Saraband.

Amazon UK Link
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45 thoughts on “Sweet William by Iain Maitland

    • That’s why I thought I should give an indication about the subject. I should have hated it too, but somehow, I’m not quite sure how, he manages to get enough distance between the reader and what’s happening to provide a kind of cushion. Normally I’d be complaining about a feeling of distance, but in this instance I thought it worked – the only one I really felt emotionally involved with was Orrey until quite late on. And I felt about him a bit like Lennie in Of Mice and Men… that he couldn’t be held fully responsible for his actions…

  1. I think I may well have to read this. It sounds very, very clever and I am intrigued – writing insane characters is so hard to do without it coming across as either parody or cliche. I like a dark subject matter when done with skill. You have convinced me, FF!

    • I must say Orrey is a wonderful creation – I love that he has a kind of old-fashioned almost cosy way of talking even when he’s doing appalling things. He kept reminding me of Thora Hird in an Alan Bennett play… but in a good way! 😉 I do think you’d enjoy this… sorry!

  2. Your justification for agreeing with a mysterious, dreadful decision by a character who might be about to do something terrible has hooked me! (Obviously this is good writing, because you’re clearly not a sicko).

    • The book was actually very accurate about how people are dealt with in secure psychiatric hospitals, I felt, and Orrey convinced me totally as someone with a severe mental illness – enjoy! 😀

  3. I keep hearing great things about this one, FictionFan. I usually don’t go for the ‘inside the head of the mentally disturbed central character’ kind of book. But this one dos sound a cut above. And it’s an interesting premise, too. Add in good writing, and I can see why you liked thiis. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as you did.

    • I must say, Margot, as you know I’m not big on really dark books nor children in peril, and yet the sheer quality of this one captured me completely. The Dinner would probably be the nearest comparison I could make – not the story, which is totally different, but the… hmm… tone, perhaps. But I think the writing in this one is actually superior to that. 😀

  4. Thanks for taking the bullet for us, FF. Hope your stress level lessens soon. Have some virtual chocolate. 🍩 Zero calories.

    My sister-in-law would want to read this, since she’s a therapist. As for me, based on your review, I will not visit its pages. The premise intrigued me. But life is stressful enough right now. 😀 😃 😄

    • Haha – thank you! A donut is just what’s required!

      I thought it was a really accurate portrayal of that kind of mental illness and a bleak but also accurate picture of the treatment in secure psychiatric hospitals, so your sister-in-law may well enjoy it. I actually found it a strangely enjoyable read despite the subject matter, but I think it’s a book you’d have to be in the right frame of mind for… 😀

  5. Sounds interesting, but not exactly a Christmas cosy! I have a friend who worked at the State Hospital for a time – this sounds like the sort of patient she used to talk about.

    • Haha – no, I don’t think I’ll be filing it under cosy! He reminded me of the boys at the school, only more extreme, of course. But that same ability to rationalise the irrational… great stuff!

  6. Ohhh this does sound like a great read, although the children as subject matter means I should probably avoid it. I am relieved to hear that it is finally a man who is the unreliable narrator, it always seems to be a woman which is frustrating for many reasons 🙂

  7. You have definitely sold this one to me although I had to do that little shocked face when I found out that not only does this five star read have a child along for the ride but also that part of the book is in the present tense – and I can’t wait to see whether I agree with the narrators options too.

    • Hahaha! I know! A toddler, good grief! And not just present tense but the dreaded FPPT! I think he must have hypnotised me or something… 😉 But seriously, I hope you love this as much as I did – it did remind me a little of Mr Heming, though darker, so I’m reaonably confident you will. Ha! I hope you do find yourself agreeing with Orrey – I’d hate to think it was just me… 😉

  8. Your admission to siding with the kidnapper reminded me of the way ol’ Humbert Humbert behind Lolita. Despite the fact that it’s so early in the book, he really gets me over in his side, thinking that young teenage girls have sexual desire and are responsible like women. I felt ashamed, but my mind was also blown. This sounds like a book I would enjoy, and I’m going to see if I can find an audio version.

    • Ha! I hated HH from pretty much page 1, though actually I think it was Nabokov I hated. Orrey is a much nicer person even if he’s a psychopathic killer… 😉 Unfotunately I don’t think there is an audio version of this one yet – maybe it will come out when the paperback is released. I reckon it could be great in the hands of a good narrator…

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