Promise is not for the faint –hearted. Anna lives on her own in a rented house. When her neighbour dies a new family move in, a young couple with a five-year-old girl. Right from the start they worry Anna, and soon after the child, Charlie turns up at her back door, having been left on her own. Anna sees bruises and a bite mark on her legs. When her mother, Gabby, returns she says ‘she’s normally fine on her own for a while’. At five years old.
Anna’s mother died when she was eight-years-old, but remembers ‘how completely safe she felt with her mother’s hand around hers. She didn’t have children of her own, assuming she would earlier on, but then it didn’t happen. ‘It baffled her that perfect strangers felt entitled to inquire about her reproductive plans and fertility’.
Her partner Dave, a lawyer, visits and they hear screaming and thumping from next door. They call the police, despite Anna’s fears about what the man will do particularly when Dave is not there. He tells her to call Family and Community Services (FACS) and keep calling if anything else occurs. He does however say he knew of a case ‘where seventeen reports were made before FACS even visited the family … It’s a question of resources. The kids most at risk are attended to first’.
Anna can’t help but feel responsible for this child. ‘She remembered something from a university lecture about how proximity to distress is what made people feel obliged to help’. She tries to ignore what is happening next door. It ‘dismayed her how easily her life had been destabilised’.
Talking to Gabby she defends the violence saying ‘I was yelled at all the time when I was a kid. It’s no big deal’, showing the continuation of the cycle where abused children choose abusive partners, or become violent themselves, as it is all they know. Gabby warns Anna against calling the police again as ‘it makes things worse’, and when Charlie turns up again she tells Anna that she ‘got in so much trouble when the police came’.
When she witnesses another atrocious act of violence, and Harlan threatens Anna, she tries FACS again, but because they cannot guarantee that any action will be taken, she leaves with Charlie. They end up at an old friend’s property where Anna tries to keep Charlie safe and provide her with some care, love and peace. She seems to be quite resilient but for children, ‘surviving’s one thing. But isn’t flourishing the aim?’
The novel shows how far Anna is prepared to go. The personal risks she took, and the toll on her and her friends’ and family’s lives was high. ‘Doing what she felt was right just seemed to put the people she loved in the shit’. She couldn’t turn a blind eye ‘like we all do when someone’s in trouble. We don’t want to get involved … We leave it to the … friggin’ authorities. But we should all be responsible for the kids around us’.
Charlie’s reactions, even after she has left the abusive home, were as if that threat was still present. Anna had ‘once read that children who grew up with trauma had stress hardwired into them’. But just as the negative leaves an impact, the positive is also stored in a child’s psyche.
The novel reflects on the rights of the parent versus the right of the chid. Children seem to come to those who shouldn’t have them and not to those who should, and young people become parents without always having a positive role model to follow. ‘Anna had no legitimate place in Charlie’s life. Gabby didn’t have to earn that right. She’d won it simply by falling pregnant, by dint of DNA’.
It also look at notions of motherhood from many perspectives. ‘She thought of all the women who had held and loved children for centuries, for eons, and wondered how many of those women weren’t mothers but aunts, grandmothers, sisters, nannies, wet nurses’.
The resolution brings many people together and it questions ‘How much did all this cost the state? And where were all these people when Charlie needed them?’ This situation, the child protection and justice systems are shown in all of their shades of grey, where nothing is straight forward.
This book is so topical at present, and should be read by all who work in the field of child protection, but also by those outside of, so that this issue is seen as something that the whole community can be responsible for in some way.