I have read (and enjoyed!) most of Zoe Whittall’s novels, but I almost passed on The Best Kind of People, because the premise of ‘school teacher accused of sexual abuse of students’ is one I’ve seen more than enough of for a lifetime. But, the book was short-listed for the Giller Prize this year, and I decided to give it a shot.
I am so glad I did!
Whittall’s treatment of this subject matter, which is simultaneously extremely sensitive and (in my opinion) massively overused in all forms of fiction, is nothing short of ground-breaking. At no point does the novel give in to the prurience so often present in these kinds of stories – we never hear any details about the sexual misconduct in question. Instead, The Best Kind of People centres itself around the experiences of the family of the man accused, in particular his sixteen-year-old daughter Sadie (who is only a few years older than the girls her father is accused of assaulting) and his wife Joan, neither of whom can reconcile the accusations with the man they know and love.
Ultimately, the novel is a masterful examination of the ways in which our society responds to these kinds of crimes, particularly when the perpetrator is respected person with a great deal of privilege. Sadie and Joan find themselves variously vilified, ostracized and supported by various community members – including support from people they wish would stay well away from them – all while desperately trying to sort through their own feelings, and what it will mean for their lives if their respective father and husband is indeed guilty.
This is a deeply emotional novel, full of well-drawn, complex and realistic characters. Well worth a read!